Christ at Emmaus
Oil on canvas, 42¼ x 68¼ ins. (107.5 x 173.4 cm)
In the collection of the family of the previous owner since at least c. 1960
Private collection, Italy, until 2018
Very little is known about the early life of Matthias Stom until documents place him in Rome in 1630, aged thirty. He was probably born in Amersfoort, a town near Utrecht, and it is assumed that he received his initial training in The Netherlands before following the well-worn path to Rome. His earliest paintings suggest that he had contact with Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656) and his circle in Utrecht in the mid-1620s. Indeed, it seems more than likely that it was his encounter with the work of the so-called Utrecht Caravaggisti that fired his enthusiasm to make the journey to Rome to see for himself not just the art of ancient Rome and the High Renaissance, but also the exciting developments in contemporary painting, above all, the revolutionary work of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1573-1610). However, unlike most of his northern colleagues, Stom never returned to the country of his birth, but chose instead to pursue his career in Italy. His style is modelled on that of Caravaggio and his Dutch followers in its dramatic immediacy, realistic figure types and strong contrasts of light and shade.
Christ at Emmaus was one of Stom’s favourite subjects. The story is told in the Gospel according to St. Luke (24:13-31): in the days following the Crucifixion, two of Jesus’s disciples were walking on the road to Emmaus. They were approached by a man whom they did not recognise. He accompanied them on their journey and in the evening they invited him to join them for supper. Only when he began to break and bless the bread did they recognise the stranger as the risen Christ (“Their eyes were opened and they recognised him; and he vanished out of their sight”).
The conception of the present painting owes much to Caravaggio. The composition is based on the Italian painter’s Supper at Emmaus in the National Gallery, London (i). A seminal work, commissioned from Caravaggio by the Roman nobleman Ciriaco Mattei in 1601, it served as inspiration for numerous interpretations of this theme by Caravaggio’s Italian and northern followers. Here, Stom adopted both Caravaggio’s choice of the most dramatic moment in the story and his arrangement of figures seated round a table, but changed the positions of the main protagonists. A candle, the scene’s only light source, burns on the table. Christ, seen in profile, is seated on the right. Cleopas, wearing the scallop shell of a pilgrim, takes centre stage, while the other unnamed disciple, seated opposite him with his back turned to the viewer, is silhouetted against the naked flame. A serving boy stands behind Christ while the shadowy figure of another man appears on the far right. On the table are the makings of the evening meal: a plate with a joint of meat, a glass of wine, a crumpled cloth and a knife. Stom has captured the moment critique when Christ’s action in breaking and blessing the bread triggers a sudden flash of recognition in the disciples, whose startled reactions are eloquently expressed in their emphatic gestures. The motif of the figure with outstretched arms represents a clear reference to Caravaggio’s famous picture.
Also typically Caravaggesque is the use of life-sized, half-length figures, seen at close range seated round a table, which has the effect of drawing the viewer close to the scene of the action. However, in contrast to Caravaggio, whose figures are enveloped in ambient light and shadow, Stom has chosen to illuminate his scene with the glowing light of a candle. Stom’s interest in such effects was likely kindled by his exposure to the work of Honthorst, who had developed a speciality in nocturnal scenes lit by artificial light sources during his time in Rome, earning him the nickname Gherardo della notti (Gerard of the Nights). The silhouetted figure in the foreground of our painting whose hand masks the naked flame is a conceit also probably learned from Honthorst, who had incorporated a partially hidden flame in a number of his compositions in the 1620s, for example his Denial of Saint Peter, in the Minneapolis Institute of Arts (ii). Throughout his career Stom regularly exploited the dramatic possibilities of candlelight in his compositions. Indeed its use is one of the hallmarks of his style. Also characteristic of Stom is the expressive use of hands as a means by which his protagonists convey their emotions. Here, the silhouette of the darkened hand shielding the flame seen against the lighted hand is a brilliant motif that heightens the dramatic power of the scene.
Christ at Emmaus was an ideal subject for Stom for not only did the biblical text call for a nocturnal scene, but it satisfied his marked preference for episodes involving moments of great dramatic or emotional intensity. During the course of his career he treated the theme at least nine times in a variety of different compositions (iii). Other versions are today in the Museo di Capodimonte, in Naples (iv), the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, in Madrid (v), the Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture, Grenoble (vi), and in the Schloss Wiessenstein, at Pommersfelden (vii). The last mentioned version is closest in conception to ours. Whilst it shares a similar arrangement of figures around the table, the theatricality of the present painting, which is created by the dramatic patterns of light and shade and the disciples’ wild gestures, is much reduced. There, the candle burns brightly on the table, casting an even glow over the startled faces of the disciples.
A precise chronology of Stom’s oeuvre is hard to establish owing to the almost complete absence of dated works. Only one signed and dated work is known - the Miracle of St. Isidorus Agricola, painted in 1641 for the church of the Agostiniani, in Caccamo, Sicily - but other pictures executed for churches and palaces in Naples or in Sicily, can be situated in the periods of time in which Stom is known to have worked in those locations. Nevertheless, on the basis of first-hand inspection, Wayne Franits dates the present painting to the early 1630s, during Stom’s years in Rome, or to the period shortly after his arrival in Naples in 1633.
Despite a sizeable oeuvre, many details of Matthias Stom’s life remain obscure. Although he is usually referred to as Matthias Stomer in art historical literature, Stom is the name that occurs in contemporary documents, as well as on his few signed paintings. Stom was probably born in Amersfoort, a town near Utrecht, around 1600. Nothing is known of his training: he is often said to have been a pupil of Gerrit van Honthorst (1592-1656), but this is unlikely since he must have started his training before 1620, the year in which Honthorst returned from Italy. A number of his early works, however, support the argument that he had contact with Honthorst and his circle in Utrecht in the mid-1620s. A more likely candidate for Stom’s teacher is Jacob van Campen (1595-1657), who had an estate in Amersfoort. Although better known today as an architect, van Campen entered the Haarlem painters’ guild in 1614 and according to contemporary sources had a successful career as a painter. Van Campen may also have taught another Amersfoort painter, Paulus Bor (c. 1601-1669).
Stom is first documented in Italy in 1630 in the census of the Roman parish of S. Nicolà in Arcione, in which his age is given as thirty (“Mattheo Stom, fiamengo pittore, di anni 30”). However, it is likely that he had arrived in the city several years earlier. In 1631, he is listed, along with the French artist Nicolas Provost, as living in the same house on the Strada dell’Olmo that Paulus Bor had occupied five years earlier. Stom probably moved to Naples around 1633 where he remained until about 1640. His sojourn in Naples is documented by numerous pictures in churches and palaces of that city. During his stay in Naples, Stom was influenced by the Spaniard Jusepe de Ribera (1591-1652), who was working there at that time. A number of pictures with a Maltese provenance suggest that while living in Naples he might have had some contact with Valetta. Stom travelled to Sicily where he undertook commissions for the churches of Caccamo, Messina and Monreale in the early 1640s. His only signed and dated work is The Miracle of St. Isidorus Agricola of 1641, painted for the high altar of the Augustinian church in Caccamo, which is still in situ. He also found a patron in the famous Italian collector Antonio Ruffo, Duke of Messina, who acquired three paintings from the artist between 1646 and 1649. Stom’s last known work is an altarpiece commissioned in 1652 for the church of S. Maria Assunta Chiuduno, in Bergamo. It is not known when or where Stom died, but the latter commission may indicate that he settled in northern Italy at the end of his life.
i Caravaggio, The Supper at Emmaus, c. 1601, oil on canvas, 141 x 196.2 cm, The National Gallery, London,
inv. no. NG172.
ii Gerrit van Honthorst, Denial of Saint Peter, c. 1620-25, oil on canvas, 110.5 x 144.8 cm, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, The Putnam Dana McMillan Fund, 71.78, Minneapolis, U.S.A.
iii Listed in Benedict Nicolson, Caravaggism in Europe, Oxford, 1989, pp. 183-4.
iv Matthias Stom, Christ at Emmaus, Museo di Capodimonte, Naples, oil on canvas, 157 x 202 cm.
v Mathias Stom, Christ at Emmaus, Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid, oil on canvas, 111 x 152 cm, inv. no. 375 (1976.66).
vi Matthias Stom, Christ at Emmaus, Musée de Peinture et de Sculpture, Grenoble, oil on canvs, 130 x 164 cm.
vii Matthias Stom, Christ at Emmaus, Schloss Wiessenstein, Pommersfelden, oil on canvas, 119 x 172 cm, inv. no. 257.
(Amersfoort, near Utrecht c. 1600 - after 1652? Sicily or Northern Italy)
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