Rembrandt’s “The Supper at Emmaus”

By Dennis Raverty

The Protestant Netherlands engaged in more open religious dialogue than anywhere else in Europe during the 17th century. Nowhere was this more evident than in the cosmopolitan city of Amsterdam, where Rembrandt lived. Although the official state religion was the Calvinist Reformed Church, other Protestants, including Lutherans, Anglicans, and even Unitarians, were tolerated as long as their churches were privately funded through voluntary donations (only the state church was supported through taxes).

Roman Catholic buildings had been seized, whitewashed and denuded of their statues and stained-glass windows, but these congregations were still permitted to practice their faith privately, similarly to Protestants. Jews fleeing the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal or the waves of antisemitism in German lands and Eastern Europe also immigrated to the Netherlands and thrived in this rich, tolerant, religiously diverse milieu.

Because Rembrandt lived in a predominantly Jewish neighborhood, numbered many Jewish clients among his portrait commissions, and often used Jewish models in his biblical paintings, it has long been assumed that Rembrandt had a deep sympathy for Judaism. This is sometimes said to be revealed in his emphasis on the humanity, rather than the divinity, of Jesus. While he undoubtedly understood Judaism better than most Christians of his time and even illustrated a mystical treatise by a rabbi, art historians Shelley Perlove and Larry Silver have demonstrated that Rembrandt’s considerable knowledge of contemporaneous Jewish practices was almost always put in the service of a conventional Calvinist understanding of Jesus’ role in salvation, fulfilling and at the same time superseding the “old law” of Judaism.

This is subtly evident in one of his best-known paintings, The Supper at Emmaus, based on the story found in the Gospel of Luke. Two unnamed disciples, walking from Jerusalem to Emmaus on the first Easter Sunday, meet a stranger on the road who is Jesus, but they do not recognize him. When they arrive at Emmaus, they invite him to join them for supper. Before the meal, the stranger blesses the wine and the bread, and when he breaks the bread they recognize him, after which he vanishes. Rembrandt shows the disciples startled, at the moment of their recognition of Jesus. In an instant Christ will be gone.

The bread Jesus blesses in Rembrandt’s picture is the cake-like braided sweet loaf served by Jews on the Sabbath, Rosh Hashanah, and other festive occasions. Its honey is said to symbolize the sweetness of salvation, and the eggs in the dough provide its characteristic amber color and represent renewal and new life (just as the egg on the Seder plate at Passover represents new life). But challah is forbidden during Passover and only unleavened, unsweetened bread made without eggs is served during the holiday, the “bread of affliction,” as it is called in the Haggadah (the text for the Jewish Passover rite). It represents the harsh slavery endured by the Hebrews under Pharaoh.

The representation of challah at this particular meal is usually interpreted as merely representing “Jewish” bread, an example of Rembrandt’s dedication to realism, as is the markedly Semitic Jesus, based on oil studies from a Sephardic model (an old tradition maintains that he was the artist’s milkman). But if the incident took place on Easter Sunday as the gospel states, and Jesus’ last supper (Maundy Thursday) was the first evening of Passover, then it would still be Passover on Sunday when the disciples met the stranger on the road, even if the supper were after sundown, because Passover lasts at least a week (seven days in Biblical times, eight days in Rembrandt’s). During the entire duration of the Passover season, challah and all leavened bread is forbidden — it is not allowed even on the Passover Sabbath.

While it may be that this was just an oversight on Rembrandt’s part, the artist, known for the fastidiousness of his research, may well have been aware that challah was forbidden at the time of the supper and so knowingly shows the Jewish dietary laws being broken by the disciples at Emmaus, a purposeful transgression that might embody a Calvinist message to the viewer (especially if Jewish): while they were breaking bread together that Sunday evening, if they were observant Jews, they are also breaking the law.

There is a tradition of selling chametz (grain that rises when exposed to water, e.g., wheat, barley) to sympathetic Gentiles for temporary safekeeping during the eight days of Passover (because it is forbidden for Jews to possess it), and then buying it back after the week of the festival was over (this custom is called mechirah). Rembrandt, a sympathetic soul, might very well have been asked to keep his neighbors’ grains for them, and so would have been familiar with the length of Passover and the prohibitions in kosher dietary laws about eating risen bread.

Perhaps this is the very point Rembrandt is trying to make: that Jesus, like the dough of the challah, is also risen. The disciples recognize Christ after the blessing of the bread because the dry, hard, matzo cracker, the “bread of affliction,” becomes, in his hands, the sweet, moist bread of celebration, salvation and joy. Likewise, the “old” Jewish Sabbath of Saturday gives way to the Sunday “Sabbath” of the new faith, marked in Rembrandt’s painting by a transgression of the law that, at the same time, signifies the transcendence of the law.

Rembrandt incorporated Jewish models and Jewish practices as part of his quest for a realistic, believable, human Jesus, but we must remember that the Jewish customs of Rembrandt’s time were not those of first-century Judeans.

So, while Rembrandt’s picture may give us information about 17th-century Jewish practice, and seems to embody a Calvinistic Christian message, its narrative is an essentially poetic and metaphorical (rather than primarily realistic) interpretation of that mystical first-century encounter with the stranger on the road, whose true identity is only recognized in the breaking of the bread.

Dr. Dennis Raverty is an associate professor of art history at New Jersey City University, specializing in art of the 19th and 20th centuries. He thanks Rabbi Jeffrey Portman and Dr. Robert Selzter, professor emeritus at Hunter College, for their help in preparing this essay