BIBLE READING: Luke 24: 13-35
We don't really know that there was a maid in the kitchen at Emmaus. Luke doesn't mention her in his post-resurrection dinner story. But there is in the artist Diego Vaelazquez's imagination. By the time that Cleopas and his unnamed companion had walked with Jesus the several kilometres from Jerusalem to Emmaus, the evening had descended upon them. When Jesus acted as if he would continue walking, they begged him, "stay with us, for the day is almost over." And so their dinner at Emmaus. During the day they hadn't recognised Jesus, but at dinner "their eyes were opened" and they understood what had happened. They immediately returned to Jerusalem and told "how Jesus was revealed to them when he broke the bread. It is true! The Lord has risen!"
While modern scholars are uncertain whether Cleopas companion was a man or a woman – in Spain in the early 1600's his companion was automatically presumed to be a man. It was also presumed that the men would not have cooked their own meal and served themselves. And so there had to be a woman behind the scenes. Which is where we discover the genius of Velázquez.
Velázquez painted two versions of "La mulata” or “The Kitchen Maid". It's the earliest known work by him, painted when he was about eighteen. The copy in the Art Institute of Chicago shows only the mullato maid. And for many decades the version in the National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin also showed only the servant girl. But when the Dublin painting was cleaned in 1933, it revealed Jesus and the two men in the distant background of the upper left corner. Clearly, the Dublin version was the dinner at Emmaus.
The main figure and visual centre point in both paintings is the kitchen maid in the foreground. Jesus and the men are relegated to a back room in the background. We see them only through a window-like opening. Velázquez depicts the maid as a mullato, the offspring of a Spanish Christian and an African Muslim. The Spanish of this time regarded the Moors (African Muslims) with disgust. They considered them lazy, subhumans. The subject of this painting, then, is a person marginalised at every level — by her race, religion, gender, and class. While the men speak of spiritual matters in the back, she's hard at work in the kitchen.
The woman is badly distracted. In her left hand she holds a ceramic jug of wine. She's glancing over her right shoulder, listening carefully to the back room conversation. She bends over to support herself. The stunned expression on her face indicates that her eavesdropping has confirmed her suspicion. She's in a state of shock at having recognised the man she's serving. The men might have been blind to the identity of Jesus even when he was with them as they walked home from Jerusalem, but the Moorish maid recognised the risen Christ while working in the kitchen.
Ther is a poem about this painting by Denise Levertov called - The Servant-Girl at Emmaus (A Painting by Velázquez). We know from a note of hers that she had seen the painting in Ireland. It's what's called an exphrasis - a literary description that reflects on a work of art. Levertov's poem is a meditation on Velázquez's painting.
listens, listens, holding
her breath. Surely that voice
is his - the one who had looked at her, once, across the crowd,
as no one ever had looked?
Had seen her? Had spoken as if to her?
Surely those hands were his,
taking the platter of bread from hers just now?
Hands he'd laid on the dying and made them well?
Surely that face — ?
The man they'd crucified for sedition and blasphemy.
The man whose body disappeared from its tomb.
The man it was rumoured now some women had seen this morning, alive?
Those who had brought this stranger home to their table
don't recognize yet with whom they sit.
But she in the kitchen, absently touching the wine jug she's to take in,
a young Black servant intently listening,
swings round and sees
the light around him
and is sure.
Like Velázquez's painting, Levertov's poem focuses not on Jesus or his companions but on the maid. She's having an interior conversation with herself. As she listens to the men in the back room, she realises that she's encountered Jesus before. At first it's his voice, then his gaze, his healing hands that now took the bread from her, and finally his face. The repetition of "surely" three times indicates her shocking realisation that this is Jesus risen from the dead.
Luke's story is often used in the context of Holy Communion. Luke 24:30 says that Jesus "took bread, gave thanks, broke it, and began to give it to them." It was precisely when Jesus "broke the bread" that "their eyes were opened" (24:31), a detail that Luke repeats a second time: "Then the two told [the other disciples] what had happened on the way, and how they recognised Jesus when he broke the bread" (24:35 ).
There's also a third painting by Velázquez, "The Supper at Emmaus," now in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. It's very conventional. It depicts only Jesus, Cleopas, and his companion, at the moment when they recognise the risen Lord in the breaking of the bread.
It seems such a dull picture when compared with his earlier painting. In his earlier paintings, the maid serves the bread, she doesn't take the bread. She's an observer and not a participant, a mullato outsider rather than a Spanish insider.
But it was the men who didn't believe the resurrection report of the women, and who were blind to the Christ who was right in front of them, whereas it was an African Muslim kitchen maid who testified first to the resurrected Lord.
Acknowledgement: Dan Clendenin