The moment when the disciples recognize the stranger in the midst as the risen Christ is show in a dramatic way, with arms outstretched and astonished faces. Here as elsewhere Caravaggio achieves part of his effect by the use of brilliantly lit figures against a dark background. The light is coming from behind the viewer, illuminating the face of Christ, which in turn seems to light up part of the faces of the two disciples. But, if it is physical light that unifies the objects and people in the painting in one way, then, as John Drury has written:
There supernatural or inward integration is achieved by the Mass itself. For it holds together inanimate and animate nature – food, utensils and people – in the mystery of Christ’s presence which permeates both and gathers them into one… The Supper of Emmaus is a fusion of epic theatre and domestic still life. It has high-definition and homeliness and high drama, held together by Christ’s blessing of food. This is decidedly and completely the Mass – and the archetype of all subsequent celebrations of it. Held in this moment of transubstantiation of inert matter by energetic spirit, Caravaggio can show a community of strongly differentiated and individual people and, like a priest at the altar, invite the spectator into it. The individuality and community of sacrament mark it everywhere.
The supper at Emmaus was not a well-known scene in the first thousand years of Christian are but it began to appear more frequently in Romanesque and Renaissance times. During the period of the Reformation and the Counter-Reformation, the place and meaning of the Eucharist was a crucial debate. It is not surprising therefore that at this time the scene of the supper at Emmaus, which has Eucharist overtones, should be of importance. For in the Gospel story in the supper at Emmaus Jesus ‘Took the bread and bless and broke it and gave it to them’ – actions that replicate those at the last supper. The story continues: ‘And their eyes were opened and the recognized him’ (Luke 24:30-31). Paintings of this scene would reinforce Catholic belief that Christ was truly present in the Eucharist. It was a scene painted not only by Caravaggio but a little later by Rembrandt. Caravaggio puts before the viewer a moment of great drama and intensity. The onlooker can feel that they are there, at the table, in this flash of recognition.
One feature is that John Drury draws attention to is the way the basket of fruit seems about to topple over the edge of the table. Our domestic instinct is to reach forward to steady it:
This genially trivial trespassing beyond the picture plane (not unprecedented) is matched by more profound ones, impelled by the sudden recognition of Jesus in his blessing of the bread. The man on the left pushed his chair back at us with involuntary force. The man on the right throws his arms aside with such abandoned amazement that his left hand seems to break through the bounds of the picture space and come out into the air between him and us. These effects are irresistible and famous and seem to put us in the path of the oncoming vehicle of Christ’s actions; but they have a serious function which is less often noticed. The pushed chair and wide gesture are conductors of revelation. They carry Christ’s self-declaratory gesture out into the spectators world as urgently as the poised basket of fruit invites every spectator into the company within.