Saturday, April 14, 2007

Velazquez, The Supper at Emmaus

As an option for their research papers, students can write about some paintings of their choosing by a painter of my choosing: the idea (the hope, actually) is for them to choose paintings that have something in common and offer and support an opinion about what they think the painter wants to convey via this whatever-it-is that recurs in the paintings they've chosen. So today, I talked through how that might work by showing them three paintings by Velázquez (who, by the way, isn't on their list of painters). Two of them, Las Meninas and Venus at Her Mirror, I've posted images of before and so won't here, but the third one is this one, The Supper at Emmaus. They are very different, to my mind, in terms of style, but what they have in common, and what we as a class have spent time discussing, is the presence of mirrors in each. We spend some time speculating as to why Velázquez has them in these paintings, functioning, as they do, as something more than mere detail; we've also meditated a bit on what mirrors themselves do and so begin to get at the implications of words such as "reflection" and "image." Ultimately, though, the goal has been simply to model for them how to get started on this task of writing about the paintings they've chosen.

Anyway, in the course of discussing The Supper at Emmaus this morning, a student said something interesting that I found interesting about a possible theological reading of the painting.

First of all, note that the event which gives the painting its title is depicted in the upper left-hand corner of the painting. Apparently, there's been some dispute among those who make a living at deciding such things over whether that scene is a painting hanging on the wall in the kitchen or is actually a mirror reflcting the activity in another room--the one we viewers would happen to be standing in; the consensus seems to be, now, that we're looking at a mirror.

Once I got all that out of the way, it suddenly occurred to me to ask something I'd not asked the other classes in which I've shown this painting: does it trivialize the event (Jesus' revealing Himself to his disciples after the Resurrection) to deliberately NOT make it the focal center of the painting? Compare, for example, to one of Caravaggio's treatments of the same theme. A student immediately said No. When I asked him why, he said that the serving woman provides an implicit message about Christ himself: specifically, his humility ("The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve"). Also, there's something in the serving woman's manner--her looking down, the overturned dishes--that suggests a sort of rushedness to attend to the men, and should that not also be our response when guests arrive? So, then, the painting is really more about our response to the event than it is the event itself.

Now: Velázquez didn't paint many religious subjects. in his salad days in Seville, he had to to make a living, but when he became a court painter, he didn't have to except when asked to (aside: but then again, just how many paintings of a Prince Baltasar does a family need? 5 appear in the catalogue of the Velázquez exhibit that I own, and no doubt there are more). Though he'd have to be, publicly, Catholic, there's no way to know the depth of his faith. If his library is any indication, his reading tastes definitively tended toward the secular rather than the sacred. But it IS true that he is very thoughtful about his subjects, that he's not into simple picture-making but is eager to communicate some larger idea through certain canvases. It's equally true that the Church of the Counter-Reformation sought art that would engage its viewers on a more emotional, less cerebral level.

I think this painting reflects both Velázquez' thoughtfulness and that desire of the Church for its art. Making the serving woman the focal point has the effect of creating a sort of 3-dimensionality (one could call it "realism" for lack of a better term) for the viewer: while the acount in Luke mentions no one other than the two disciples, surely a woman served them their meal. And so Velázquez depicts her. But there's more than "mere" realism here: our attention is on this woman. We watch her actions and, surely, wonder what she is thinking. She becomes our stand-in in this scene, even as the mirror on the back wall causes us to stand in the space of the painting.

(Originally posted at Blog Meridian)


Anonymous said...

There is an interesting article in the February 2008 issue of "Art History" (journal out of England) about this painting, looking at the iconography in relation to the theological discourse in Seville about the salvation of African slaves.

Of course, Velazquez was only 18 or 19 when he did this.

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