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Saturday, May 17, 2008

On the Way to Emmaus

Fritz von Uhde 1848 – 1911
Walking to Emmaus 1891
Oil on Canvas
Gemäldegalerie Alte Meister, Dresden



Fritz von Uhde (1848 - 1911) made the acquaintance of Hans Makart in Vienna. In 1876 he left military service in order to dedicate himself to painting.

He developed a naturalistic-impressionistic style. In 1892 he belonged to the group of founders of the Munich Secession.

Along with Lovis Corinth and Max Slevogt, Uhde is considered to be one of the most important German Impressionists.

In his many religious paintings, Uhde wanted to express the timelessness of Jesus’ story by depicting him in contemporary settings. At the time they were painted, these religious paintings were popular and praised

Historians of central Europe agree that the fin de siècle was a time of artistic ferment. It was also a time of renewal and renovation in religious thought.

In particular, it was a time when some sought to return to an ideal purity of the early Church. One of the themes was to regard Christ as "man amongst men". It involved a quest to discover the historical Jesus.

In the Salon at the turn of the century one anti-clerical Frenchman (Mirabeau) noted:

"[c'est] une épidémie, Jésus-Christ anarchiste, socialiste, libéral et révolutionnaire, réaliste, historique, symboliste, naturaliste [est partout]…"
(Le Journal, 28 April 1901).



But to turn back to Uhde, his paintings did not go down well in all quarters. The popularity of his "contemporary" vision of Christ did not last long. In The Religious Situation (1926/1932), at page 89 the theologian Paul Tillich said memorably:

"It is not an exaggeration to ascribe more of the quality of sacredness to a still-life by Cézanne or a tree by Van Gogh than to a picture of Jesus by Uhde."


Later Tillich rowed back from such an extreme view:

"Cézanne proclaims a mystical devotion to life, and does so with the tools of a very great artist. Uhde proclaims ethical-social devotion with the tools of a minor artist. But basically he, too, is religious."
(Tillich, My Travel Diary, p. 108.)


All of which illustrates the unbridgeable historic gap faced by the Christian artist in portraying a historic Jesus. Studying history inevitably involves a measure of self-projection, a creative intuition. The “past” one views is always the past one re-creates by projection and intuition.

The Walk to Emmaus, also called the Meeting at Emmaus, has been treated by comparatively few painters. The Blessed Fra Angelico is one. The theme of the Supper at Emmaus seems to have found more favour. But:

"The image of the disciples on the way to Emmaus can serve as a fitting guide for a Year when the Church will be particularly engaged in living out the mystery of the Holy Eucharist.

Amid our questions and difficulties, and even our bitter disappointments, the divine Wayfarer continues to walk at our side, opening to us the Scriptures and leading us to a deeper understanding of the mysteries of God.

When we meet him fully, we will pass from the light of the Word to the light streaming from the “Bread of life”, the supreme fulfilment of his promise to “be with us always, to the end of the age” (cf. Mt 28:20)."

Pope John Paul II. Apostolic Letter Mane Nobiscum Domine 7th October 2004