The picture of Christ at Emmaus illustrates an event in the narrative of Christ's life which took place on the evening of the first Easter Sunday. It was now three days since the Crucifixion of Christ just outside Jerusalem, and the terrible scene was still very fresh in the minds of his disciples. It happened that late in the day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, not very far from Jerusalem.

They made the journey on foot, and as they walked along the way, "they talked together," says the evangelist[9] who tells the story, "of all those things which had happened. And it came to pass, that, while they communed together and reasoned, Jesus himself drew near, and went with them. But their eyes were holden that they should not know him. And he said unto them, 'What manner of communications are these that ye have one to another, as ye walk, and are sad?' And the one of them, whose name was Cleopas, answering said unto him, 'Art thou only a stranger in Jerusalem, and hast not known the things which are come to pass there in these days?' And he said unto them, 'What things?' And they said unto him, 'Concerning Jesus of Nazareth.'" Then followed a conversation in which they told the stranger something of Jesus, and he in turn explained to them many things about the life and character of Jesus which they had never understood.

[9] St. Luke, chapter xxiv. verses 13-32.

"And they drew nigh unto the village, whither they went: and he made as though he would have gone further. But they constrained him, saying, 'Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.' And he went in to tarry with them.

"And it came to pass, as he sat at meat with them, he took bread, and blessed it, and brake, and gave to them. And their eyes were opened and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight. And they said one to another, 'Did not our hearts burn within us, while he talked with us by the way?'"

The picture suggests vividly to us that wonderful moment at Emmaus when the eyes of the disciples were opened, and they recognized their guest as Jesus, whom they had so recently seen crucified. The table is laid in a great bare room with the commonest furnishings, and the disciples appear to be laboring men, accustomed to "plain living and high thinking." They are coarsely dressed, and their feet are bare, as are also the feet of Jesus. One seems to have grasped the situation more quickly than the other, for he folds his hands together, reverently gazing directly into the face of Jesus. His companion, an older man, at the other end of the table, looks up astonished and mystified. The boy who is bringing food to the table is busy with his task, and does not notice any change in Jesus.

CHRIST AT EMMAUS The Louvre, Paris
The Louvre, Paris

In the midst is Christ, "pale, emaciated, sitting facing us, breaking the bread as on the evening of the Last Supper, in his pilgrim robe, with his blackened lips, on which the torture has left its traces, his great brown eyes soft, widely opened, and raised towards heaven, with his cold nimbus, a sort of phosphorescence around him which envelops him in an indefinable glory, and that inexplicable look of a breathing human being who certainly has passed through death."

This description is by a celebrated French critic,[10] himself a painter, who knows whereof he speaks. He says that this picture alone is enough to establish the reputation of a man.

[10] Fromentin, in Old Masters of Belgium and Holland.

There is one artistic quality in the picture to which we must pay careful attention, as it is particularly characteristic of Rembrandt. This is the way in which the light and shadow are arranged, or what a critic would call the chiaroscuro of the picture. The heart of the composition glows with a golden light which comes from some unseen source. It falls on the white tablecloth with a dazzling brilliancy as if from some bright lamp. It gleams on the faces of the company, bringing out their expressions clearly. The arched recess behind the table is thrown into heavy shadow, against which the centrally lighted group is sharply contrasted.

This singular manner of bringing light and darkness into striking opposition makes the objects in a picture stand out very vividly. Some one has defined chiaroscuro as the "art of rendering the atmosphere visible and of painting an object enveloped in air." The art was carried to perfection by Rembrandt. You will notice it more or less in every picture of this collection, but nowhere is it more appropriate than here, where the appearance of Christ, as the source of light, emphasizes the mystery of the event and makes something sacred of this common scene.

As we compare this picture with the etching of Christ Preaching, we get a better idea of Rembrandt's aim in representing Christ. He did not try to make his face beautiful with regular classical features, after the manner of the old Italian painters. He did not even think it necessary to make his figure grand and imposing. Something still better Rembrandt sought to put into his picture, and this was a gentle expression of love.