Jacopo Pontormo, Supper at Emmaus, 1525, Oil on canvas, 90 1/2 x 68 inches. Uffizi Gallery, Florence, Italy
“And their eyes were opened, and they knew him;
and he vanished out of their sight.” (St. Luke)
Supper at Emmaus is not Pontormo’s most celebrated painting. It was criticized at the time for being inappropriately literal and coarse. His naturalism was deemed ‘repulsive’. Compared to masterpieces like his swirling, glowing Deposition, this painting is certainly clunky, dark, filled with earth, muck, housecats and so many toes. But this painting has stuck with me precisely for its literalness. Pontormo has painted the body of Christ three times over. The first two depictions are clear: (1) Christ the man, and (2) the bread and wine that will come to stand in for his vanished body. The third depiction is the canvas itself, anthropomorphized by the eye of God glowing above and Christ’s toes in the shadows below. These three selves oscillate: man, symbol, presence. Body, food, paint. I’ve been thinking of this painting as a fractured self. Like the psyche as it really is: fluctuating between the reality to which we adhere, our corporeal flesh and the abstract nature of experience.
Why do we see that foot? This dinner table would have to be quite small or Christ would have had to recline for his toes to reach our vision. That foot is a liberty this Mannerist has taken, a forced foreshortening that opens up room for slippery viewing. In the writings of D.W. Winnicott, religious devotion and art are “indeterminate experiences”. They bring up unnamable feelings that alert us to the corners of our psyche where we have not fully accepted reality. Pontormo’s Supper is an indeterminate space, one where reality, artifice and the sublime uncomfortably intertwine.
Wondering if I was being too liberal with my interpretation of Pontormo’s work, I returned to the painter’s own words. In his diaries (admittedly from a later date), body, food and paint are main topics, often conflated: “Tuesday I did the leg with the thigh under the backs, and at night I had half a kid goat’s head.” OR “On the 15th of March I started the arm that holds the belt, that was on Friday and at night I had an omelet, cheese, figs and nuts and 11 oz. of bread.” His entries are brief and cover a narrow range of topics: his physical health, the weather, what he painted, what he ate and with whom he ate it (usually Bronzino). I could not help but feel that Pontormo’s contemporaries’ criticisms were right in a way. Here was a man painting the sublime, while recording the weight of every chunk of bread.
Sarah Faux, Night Scene, 2014. Oil and dye on canvas, 50 x 44 inches