FLORENCE, Italy — Is there a more hallucinatory painter than Jacopo Carucci, more popularly known as Jacopo Pontormo? Standing apart from the artists of his generation who, swamped in Michelangelo’s wake, chose the overwrought and musclebound as their means of expression, Pontormo filled his works with sylph-like figures swirling in undulating rhythms that shimmer with the evanescence of a mirage.
Florence is home to Pontormo’s twinned masterpieces, “Annunciation” (1527-1528) and “Deposition” (c.1528), which occupy the gated Cappella Capponi in the Church of Santa Felicità. There is also a stunner at the Uffizi, though of a very different sort. As if lit by an inner light, the “Annunciation” and “Deposition” glow with an iridescence that arguably matches Michelangelo’s Sistine Ceiling while remaining wholly original in concept and execution.
The Uffizi’s “Supper at Emmaus” (1525), which is oil on canvas, emerges from a foreboding darkness — Caravaggesque avant la lettre — that is shot through with dazzling plays of light. The subject is the story of two apostles who, while walking together toward the town of Emmaus after the death of Jesus, are joined by a mysterious stranger. When the three travelers stop to eat at Emmaus, the stranger reveals himself to be Jesus, proving his resurrection.
Many depictions of the story hinge on the moment of revelation, making the most of the apostles’ expressions of shock (this is especially true of Caravaggio’s version at the National Gallery in London). Pontormo’s is instead rather matter of fact. The atmosphere is relaxed, with the apostle on the left pouring himself a glass of wine and the one on the right holding a small, round loaf of bread as he casually turns toward Jesus.
But there are a couple of trippy elements to the scene. One is the group of friars (who commissioned the piece) in the shadowy nether space behind the table. Another is the eye of God framed inside a triangle ( the same one that’s on the back of the dollar bill) hovering over the head of Christ.
This has been called a later addition to the canvas, but it fits so well into the scheme that it makes you wonder, if it is indeed spurious, what might have been there originally. The eye of God forms the apex of a triangle defined by the necks of the two apostles and the far end of the white tablecloth, with the blue-clad figure of Christ recessed inside, a triangle within a triangle.
Below these shapes, the directionals become almost random. The elbow of the apostle on the left, in the yellow shirt, continues the triangle’s slope, but across the table, the robes draped over his counterpart’s shoulder drop straight down, as if falling off a cliff. And the section below the truncated ellipse of the tabletop (which is echoed, in perfection, by the metal serving dish directly in front of Christ) is a tangle of twisted fabric, stool legs and bare, dirty feet.
The upward lift, therefore, following Christian dogma, rises from the lower depths to the perfection of God through the sacrifice of Jesus, who is in the act of blessing a loaf of bread, recalling the Last Supper.
But this movement also traces the temporal sequence of the painting, which represents the moment just prior to recognition. Entirely absorbed in what he is doing, the apostle pouring the wine gazes downward, his face cast in shadow. From behind, a beam of light catches the back of his neck, the corner of his jaw and the ridge of his ear, forming a stunningly sinuous abstraction with the line of his beard and the nearly perfect circle of his black, close-cropped hair.
The same shaft of light fully illuminates the other apostle, who — although he is looking straight at Christ — shows no sign that he knows who he is. Thus we can view this image as the membrane of a liminal moment: the radiance on Jesus’ face dissipating the shadows that have kept his identity hidden, while the apostles move without their volition or knowledge over the threshold of revelation.
The high contrast and bright color of the painting signal the traversal from confusion to certainty and despair to hope. But because “Supper at Emmaus” is a painting and not a play, we see everything all at once — the simulteneity of its stacked layers infusing the quotidian with the celestial and vice versa: dichotomies that make sense to us but fly in the face of the narrative the artwork is meant to convey.
The simultaneity, however, ends up with our knowing what is happening before the apostles do. In the image’s frozen moment, they are eternally outside revelation’s gate, never realizing that transcendence is within their reach.
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