After the Crucifixion, two of Christ’s disciples are walking to Emmaus when the resurrected Christ himself draws near and walks with them. They do not recognise him: he’s disguised as a pilgrim with a staff and a hat bearing the pilgrim’s shell (Luke 24: 13–35). When he asks why they are so sorrowful, they say it is because Christ has died. He explains that Christ had to suffer to redeem the world.
We see Christ and the disciples again in the middle distance approaching Emmaus. The disciples remain unaware of Christ’s identity until he eats supper with them in Emmaus, when he breaks the bread in an echo of the Last Supper.
The painting is first recorded in the Carmelite church of S. Bartolomeo, Cremona. It was probably an altarpiece, and was originally more square in shape but has been cut down at the top. The subject is unusual for an altarpiece and it’s possible that the painting was donated to the church rather than made for it.
The Gospel of Saint Luke (24: 13–53) tells how, shortly after the Crucifixion, two of the disciples were walking to Emmaus when the resurrected Christ himself drew near and walked with them. They did not recognise him. He asked why they were so sorrowful. When they told him it was because Christ had died, he explained that Christ had to suffer to redeem the world.
Melone’s painting is unusual in showing Christ dressed as a pilgrim. It was more common in paintings at this time for the disciples to be shown as pilgrims, with Christ wearing his usual robes so he could be recognised easily.
The three figures are shown again in the middle distance with Christ in the centre and the others taking his arms, walking towards a fortified hilltop village, typical of Lombardy where this picture was painted. The older disciple is probably intended to be Cleopas or Clopas, while the younger one could be Saint Luke or Saint John.
Christ’s hands are marked with the wounds where he was nailed to the Cross but his pilgrim disguise explains why the disciples do not immediately recognise him. The scallop shell on Christ’s hat is a token usually worn by those who have made a pilgrimage to Santiagio de Compostella in Spain, and the gold pin is in the shape of a pilgrim’s staff. A similar shell and pin can be seen on the hat of the pilgrim Saint Roch in The Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints Gall, John the Baptist, Roch (?) and Bartholomew by Marziale. The disciples only recognise Christ later in the story when they sit down to eat with him at Emmaus, when Christ breaks bread in an echo of the Last Supper.
The painting is first recorded on 24 June 1627, when it was in the Carmelite church of S. Bartolomeo, Cremona. It was originally squarer in shape and was probably an altarpiece. The square shape was common to other early sixteenth-century altarpieces in Cremona, such as Christ carrying the Cross and the Virgin Mary swooning by Boccaccio Boccaccino. The road to Emmaus is an unusual subject for an altarpiece and it is possible that the painting was donated to the church rather than made for it.
Melone liked painting directly on wet paint, a technique known as wet in wet. The feathery brushwork with which the hair and cheeks of the younger disciple are depicted, and the successive dabs rendering vibrant light on the spongy foliage of the trees, are effects achieved only by painting in this way.
Melone’s picture has a clarity and monumentality that seem to reflect his experience of working on large-scale narrative frescoes in Cremona Cathedral, which were made to be viewed at a distance. The broad-edged, sharply folded drapery seen in the cloaks here was probably inspired by Boccaccino’s late works and is similar to that in Melone’s own frescoes of 1518 in the Cathedral. Christ’s short cape, hat and shoes look like those worn by Joseph in Melone’s cathedral fresco The Flight into Egypt of 1517.
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