In this grand composition Servandoni is faithful to the lessons of his master Panini. He depicts the supper between Christ and the disciples of Emmaus. This representation is both the centre of his composition and an anecdotical scene in the background of a grandiose architectural work, which recalls the achievements of Servandoni as an architect.
1. Jean-Nicholas Servandoni, painter of ruins and architect
Jean-Nicholas Servandoni's father was a French coachman who worked between Florence and Lyon, and his mother an Italian. He began his artistic education in Rome around 1715 in the studio of Giovanni Paolo Panini (1691 - 1765), the inventor of paintings of ruins. It was also in Rome that he discovered theatrical productions and ephemeral architecture, in which he would later excel.
Arriving in Paris in 1724 after a stay in Lisbon, he became a decorator for the Opera - he was also First Painter-Decorator and Director of Machines of the Royal Academy of Music between 1728 and 1742. At that time, he was greatly influenced by the artworks Giuseppe Bibiena (1696 - 1756) developed for the Viennese court and in particular by the technique whereby a perspective’s vanishing point was shifted to one side of the stage.
In 1731 Servandoni was admitted to the Royal Academy of Painting and Sculpture as a painter of ruins. He also worked as an architect, designing the Chapel of the Virgin in the Church of Saint Sulpice in Paris in 1729, and from 1732 onwards its façade and towers.
He left Paris in 1745 to escape from his creditors and travelled through the European courts: London, Lisbon, Vienna. On his return to Paris in 1752 he proposed a project for a semi-circular plaza to highlight the façade of the Saint-Sulpice Church. The sole remnant of this project is number 6 place St Sulpice which was the only building constructed following this design.
Few of Servandoni's paintings have survived to the present day, even though his influence on French painters in the second half of the 18th century was considerable. Pierre-Antoine Demachy (1723 - 1807) was his pupil in 1754 and he had a lasting influence on Hubert Robert (1733 - 1808), even though Robert probably did not meet him before his departure to Italy.
2. An architectural capriccio
All Servandoni's talents as an opera decorator and as an architect are reflected in this painting.
A vaulted corridor of gigantic proportions leads to an open-air courtyard, enclosed by a high wall over the top of which an antique building can be seen. This corridor is preceded by two ruined columns. The perspective is daring as it is slightly off-centre to the right, guiding our gaze first to the side façade. In the middle of this façade stands a majestic round opening, surmounted by a Baroque cartouche and framed by a pair of Ionic columns built into the facade. A balcony, situated at the axis of this opening, further enhances the perspective, and immediately catches the eye.
The highly scenic architecture is further enhanced by the setting sun’s play of light behind the courtyard wall - in the off-centre axis of the picture. The sun’s rays illuminate the façade and balcony, while the left side of the composition remains in shadow. The light emphasizes the building’s irregularities: the brick underlay is visible behind the plaster, the façade’s stonemasonry has a chromatic richness that makes it almost tangible.
Three figures occupy the balcony. Wrapped in multicoloured stoles, two of them are leaning over a high stone balustrade. Their gaze guides us to a second group of figures, seated in the inner courtyard, in front of a stone niche decorated with an urn-shaped fountain.
3. A spiritual artwork
The group in the background represents Christ and the two disciples of Emmaus. The latter appear astonished to recognise Christ (represented as the central figure, surrounded by a golden halo), as he breaks bread and makes a gesture of blessing with his right hand.
The scene is taken from the Gospel according to Saint Luke (24, 13-31): “Now that same day two of them were going to a village called Emmaus, about seven miles from Jerusalem. As they talked and discussed these things with each other, Jesus himself came up and walked along with them; but they were kept from recognizing him. […] As they approached the village to which they were going, Jesus continued on as if he were going farther. But they urged him strongly, “Stay with us, for it is nearly evening; the day is almost over.” So he went in to stay with them. When he was at the table with them, he took bread, gave thanks, broke it and began to give it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him, and he disappeared from their sight.”
Many elements of the composition take on a special meaning in the context of this evangelical representation. The narrative space in which the breaking of bread takes place is framed on the ground by two stones that form a cross, reminiscent of the crucifixion, while three beams stand out in the sky in a Trinitarian symbol.
The table in the courtyard evokes the altar in the heart of a church. In the middle of this altar, Christ sits, as if on a throne, creating an apparition which celebrates the mystery of the Eucharist. Three steps, a new Trinitarian symbol, lead to this sacred space. The orientation of light also takes on a symbolic meaning. The early churches were traditionally oriented from east to west (a tradition that can be found, for example, in St. Peter's Basilica in Rome). Tracing this orientation, the light which illuminates the northern façade obliquely, corresponds perfectly to a late afternoon light, an echo of the gospel indicating "the day is almost over".
A final Eucharistic reference can be seen in the urn-shaped fountain and could explain the presence of the servant. The urn evokes a funerary purpose, but from this tomb springs water, a symbol of life. In addition, this water is lightly tinged with red, a final celebration of the wedding in Cana, where the water poured by the servants into stone vats at Christ's request was changed into wine by divine will.
Main bibliographical reference :
Under the direction of Guillaume Faroult with the collaboration of Catherine Voiriot - Hubert Robert 1733-1808 un peintre visiuonnaire - Paris 2016
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