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The Gospel of Luke tells how after the Crucifixion, Cleopas and another of Christ’s disciples set out from Jerusalem for the village of Emmaus. They were joined by a stranger who recounted the prophecies concerning the Messiah’s death and resurrection. It was not until the three ate together later at an inn in Emmaus that the disciples recognised the risen Christ (Luke 24: 13–29).
Lelio Orsi sets the episode on an overcast evening – bursts of light break through black clouds, casting a supernatural glow. One disciple clasps his belt while the other wrings his hands in anguish as Christ in the centre explains the prophecies. The small goldfinch in the bottom right-hand corner is a common symbol of the Passion (Christ’s torture and crucifixion). The painting, which probably dates to about 1565–75, reveals Orsi’s interest in the work of Michelangelo, which he would have seen on an earlier trip to Rome.
The Gospel of Luke tells how after Christ’s crucifixion, on the evening of his resurrection, Cleopas and another of Christ’s disciples set out from Jerusalem for the village of Emmaus. They were discussing the news that Christ’s tomb had been discovered empty and were full of sorrow. They were joined on the road by a stranger who rebuked them for their lack of faith and explained the prophecies concerning the Messiah’s death and resurrection. It was not until the three ate together later at an inn in Emmaus that the disciples recognised the risen Christ (Luke 24: 13–29). He then vanished and the disciples hurried back to Jerusalem to relay the news of Christ’s resurrection to his other disciples.
Lelio Orsi sets the episode on an overcast evening – bursts of light break through black clouds, casting a supernatural glow over the three figures walking along the road to Emmaus. Christ and the disciples are dressed in the broad-brimmed hats and simple costume of peasants, probably derived from northern European prints. The disciple on the left carries a yellow pack slung from the staff over his shoulder and a water flask. The other two travellers also carry pilgrims‘ staffs with spiked metal tips. The prominent daggers at their belts express something of the dangers that beset contemporary pilgrims on their journeys to the Holy Land.
The two disciples turn to the mysterious stranger in the centre as he explains the prophecy of the Messiah’s resurrection. The stranger – who is Christ himself – turns his open palm upward as he offers his explanation. The disciple on the left wrings his hands, while the one on the right clutches his belt. They don’t recognise the man as Christ, but the artist identifies him for us by his brightly lit white robe. The small goldfinch in the bottom right-hand corner is another clue to the stranger’s identity as it is a common symbol of the Passion. Legend has it that the distinctive red markings on the goldfinch’s head were caused by drops of Christ’s blood when the bird withdrew a thorn from his forehead during the Crucifixion.
The complex, brightly lit folds of the drapery continue the swirling movement of the clouds in the sky and heighten the drama of the scene. The fabric clings to and reveals the muscular limbs of the massive bodies beneath. The painting, which shows Orsi’s interest in the work of Michelangelo, dates from after Orsi’s trip to Rome, and probably to about 1565–75. Christ and the figure on the left are very similar in pose and physical type to figures on the right of Michelangelo’s Crucifixion of Saint Peter (Capella Paolina, Vatican) and almost certainly derive from them.
As Christ recounts the prophecies of his resurrection to his two disciples, hope begins to dawn on them like the bright light breaking through the overcast sky above. Preparatory drawings for this painting survive in the Louvre, Paris; Wadsworth Athenaeum, Hartford; and a private collection in Sacramento, California. To have made so many versions of the same drawing is quite rare in sixteenth-century Italian art – during his lifetime Orsi was particularly celebrated for his skill in drawing.
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