The Meal at Emmaus

CARAVAGGIO, 1571 - 1610

Two of Jesus' disciples were walking to Emmaus after the Crucifixion when the resurrected Jesus himself drew near and went with them, but they did not recognise him. At supper that evening in Emmaus:
". . 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"(Luke 24: 30-31).
Jesus is shown at the moment of blessing the bread and revealing his true identity to the two disciples.

Caravaggio's innovative treatment of the subject makes this one of his most powerful works. The depiction of Jesus is unusual in that he is beardless and great emphasis is given to the still life on the table. The intensity of the emotions of Jesus' disciples is conveyed by their gestures and expression. The viewer too is made to feel a participant in the event. Caravaggio painted a second more subdued version of the Supper at Emmaus about five years later. (Notes courtesy of the National Gallery).

There is a lot of history surrounding the area of Emmaus which goes way back before the time of Jesus. It is first heard of at the time of the Revolt of the Maccabees (170-164 BCE.), against the decrees of Antiochus Epiphanes IV and his defilement of the Temple. His forces, who were sent, under Gorgias, to put down the revolt, were camped at Emmaus and there, by the brilliant strategy for which he was famous, Judah Maccabee dealt them a severe blow - one of his many startling victories against superior forces, which eventually led to the defeat of the Seleucid Empire, the re-establishment of Jewish rule and authority, and the rededication of the Temple - bringing with it the beginning of the Hasmonean dynasty. The name "Emmaus", is the Greek derivation of its earlier Hebrew name "Hammat", signifying hot springs - as, indeed there were, in those days. The area is very strategic, even today; the road leading from the coast to Jerusalem passes just by here and only two miles further east it enters the pass in the Judean Hills leading up to Jerusalem.
Because of the incident involving Jesus, the Byzantine Church, seeking out places relating to events surrounding Jesus, began to take an interest in the area and built at least two churches. One of them was destroyed in the earthquake of 748/9 CE and never rebuilt, although its remains are still there. A second one was built a little farther south about half-a-mile away. On the top of an adjacent hill, the Crusaders, during their stay here, built a castle which became known as "le Tour des Chevaliers" - "The Knights' Tower". The Arab-speaking peoples were unable to pronounce these words clearly, and the name gradually became corrupted from "le tour" to "el A-Tour" then "elatur" and finally - "Latrun".....and so it is today. This, in itself, led to yet a further twist in the story: the Latin for "thief" or "robber" is "latronis" and very soon it became an accepted tradition that the good thief who had been crucified together with Jesus, came from close by Emmaus. This brought even greater Christian interest in the area.
The British, during the Mandatory period, also recognised its important position and built here the modern version of a "castle" - a Taggart fort. Designed by Sir William Taggart, these police stations - which is what they were nominally - were, for their period, immensely strong; there were several dotted all over the country, from the northern border with Lebanon, to as far south as the Ashkelon area. Most of them are either still in use by Israel's Border Guard or function as military museums depicting the military history of the area and the station's role in the battles which took place in the surrounding area. The one at Latrun was particularly important and in 1948 was under the control of the Jordanian Legion, which therefore controlled the road from Tel-Aviv to Jerusalem. In three bloody attempts, the Israeli forces attempted to capture it with enormous losses but were unsuccessful. Only in 1967 was it captured and today it is a military museum and memorial to the Armoured Corps.
Today, on the site of the second of the two churches, stands the Monastery of Latrun, belonging to the Trappist monks of the Cistertian Order. Their monastery was built about 170 years ago.

Grateful thanks to The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, London

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