(Supper at Emmaus by Caravaggio)
- Who is at the centre of the picture?
- How does the artist make sure we focus on Jesus?
- Why is Jesus the central person in the picture?
- What is Jesus doing?
- How are the other people reacting to him?
Something very simple and ordinary suddenly becomes full of meaning and significance. This simple, ordinary action opens their eyes so that they can suddenly see Jesus as he really is. That is art in action! Art captures or creates moments when ordinary things are seen as significant. When our eyes are suddenly opened, in this way, to see meaning and significance in something that we had previously thought of as simple and ordinary, that is called an epiphany.
There is a time in the Church calendar that is also called Epiphany. Who can remember when Epiphany is? What do we remember and celebrate in the season of Epiphany? At Epiphany we remember the Magi or Wise Men coming to visit Jesus as a young child.
In the Epiphany icon above Jesus has a halo and is being spotlighted by the star that led the Magi to him but Jesus would actually have been a very ordinary looking young boy. There wouldn’t have been anything special that the Magi would have seen that marked him out as being significant but nevertheless they realised who he was and worshipped him. They saw the significance of the ordinary looking child they had come to visit and that is why they had an epiphany. By giving Jesus a halo and spotlighting him with a star, this painting focuses our attention on the significance of Jesus, rather than this ordinariness. It shows us the significance that the Magi saw in this ordinary looking child through their epiphany.
An epiphany happens when an everyday reality becomes charged with spiritual significance. This is what art can do for us. It can give us epiphanies by helping us see ordinary things in new ways. Caravaggio’s painting does that for us. It is a painting of an epiphany but it is also an epiphany itself because it brings the story to life in a way that helps us see it afresh, as though we were seeing it for the first time.
You have a wonderful and important work of art in your Church – John Piper’s ‘Emmaus’ mosaic. It is important because John Piper was a significant British artist and also because this mosaic is probably the first that he made for a Church. Whatever you think about it, whether you like it or not, because you see it so often it is likely that you often don’t really notice it or think anything much of it. That is what happens whenever something becomes very familiar to us. How could we change that so that we start to see it afresh, as though we were seeing it again for the very first time?
Art could do that for us? One of the ideas that Robert Enoch has suggested for this Church would make that happen, if it was tried as a temporary installation, by covering up the mosaic initially with another design; like this …
Then over several weeks more and more of the mosaic would be revealed until the whole image was visible once again.
We’re not saying that that idea will definitely happen – that would be for you to decide as a Church and we would like to discuss some of our ideas with you after the service is over – but, if that installation were to happen it would have the effect of helping you see your ‘Emmaus’ mosaic again as though for the first time. Just as the disciples had an epiphany when they saw Jesus as though for the first time, this artwork would help you to have a similar epiphany about your ‘Emmaus’ mosaic.
Something similar could happen with the Church building too. Lots of people locally will come into the centre of Harlow regularly and walk straight past this building as though it isn’t there. Again, it is something so familiar that they don’t stop to look at it and see it as though for the first time. Once again, art could make them stop and stare. Another of our ideas is to project images at night onto the west windows of the church. Changing or moving images in those windows, again as a temporary installation, could make local people stop and look again at this building. Through the projected images we could show on the outside something of what happens on the inside and that might make people stop and look and see this church – the building and the people – as though for the very first time.
This is what art can do and when art gives us epiphanies like this then our eyes are opened, as were the eyes of the disciples on the road to Emmaus, and we see something of God in the ordinary, everyday things around us. Whether we like the idea of the artworks that I’ve mentioned this morning or not, having epiphanies, seeing God in the everyday, seeing heaven in the ordinary, now that is something for which each of us should pray on a daily basis. Art can help to make that happen for us but our prayer should first and foremost be may our eyes be opened to see the glory of God all around us, whether that comes through art or by some other means. May it be so for each one of us. Amen.