A remarkable cabinet painting by František Karel Palko features Christ meeting with two of his disciples at Emmaus. The painting is inspired by a story from the twenty-fourth chapter of the Gospel of Luke. The New Testament text describes the despair of Jesus’ disciples following their teacher’s execution. On leaving the city where the painful event took place, they are joined by an unknown man. He questions them about what had happened and subsequently explains the meaning and significance of what they feel. When they reach the end of their journey, they invite their companion to stay the night… The painting depicts the pivotal moment of the story. As they break bread, the disciples realise the unknown man is their resurrected teacher: 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. They asked each other, “Were not our hearts burning within us while he talked with us on the road and opened the Scriptures to us?”
The painting clearly bears a resemblance to a small number of early works from around 1745 when Palko completed his studies and received a gold academic medal. According to Preiss’s catalogue raisonné, Supper at Emmaus ranks only seventh among Palko’s surviving paintings. Such is the mastery of its execution that it was for a long time believed to be the work of the famous Austrian painter Franz Anton Maulbertsche. In 1971, Klára Garasová was the first to point out that the painting was in fact created by Palko; the attribution was then adopted by scholar Pavel Preiss, as listed in his monograph on Palko – the only such publication devoted to the painter to date.
The scene in which the disciples recognise Christ during supper is set in an intimately lit interior illuminated from the left by sharp daylight. Rays of sunlight provide the figures of two men, seated at a small table with their backs to the light source and clad in rich draperies, with great depth. The figure of Christ is portrayed in profile at right, opposite the window. With upturned face, he holds a piece of bread in his left hand while the placement of his right hand suggests speech. The excited gestures of the seated men and the perceived tension of their bodies in interaction with the standing figure of their guest hint at the disciples’ innermost feelings. The rendition of the painting corresponds with sketches – very popular at the time – which depict an early take on the subject matter in the artist’s signature style.
The painting of Christ and his disciples at Emmaus comes from the margravial collections in Baden-Baden where it constituted a pendant painting to an image of Jesus walking on water towards a kneeling St. Peter. The dichotomy between the fragility and strength of human faith sustained by hope clearly constitutes a unifying motif for this pair of paintings.
František Karel Palko was born into a family of painters in the Silesian city of Wrocław on 3 December 1724. He began his studies at the Jesuit school in Bratislava (Pressburg) where, in close proximity to his brother, the painter František Antonín, he first devoted himself to the fine arts. In his monograph on the artist, Pavel Preiss convincingly disproves a deeply rooted belief regarding Palko’s subsequent Italian training. In fact, between 1739 and 1744, Palko was enrolled at the Viennese academy. A number of key painters such as František Antonín Maulbertsch, Josef Ignác Mildorfer and Jan Lukáš Kracker were also enrolled there at the time. One of Palko’s first important works is a painting depicting Judith and Holofernes. Created during the final stage of his Vienna studies, the painting was recognized with a gold academic medal in 1745. Simultaneously, Palko also received a commission for work at the court of the Saxon prince-elector in Dresden.
In mid-1752 the painter settled in Prague’s Lesser Quarter, where he was commissioned by the local Jesuits to paint frescos in the Church of St. Nicholas. However, as representatives of the local Guild of Saint Luke soon began protesting against the activities of the foreign painter, Palko’s work was thus interrupted for some time. Prior to the settlement of the dispute, while working on several simultaneous assignments in Dresden, Palko was also commissioned by the burghers of Kutná Hora to paint frescoes in the Church of St. John of Nepomuk. He went on to create the main altar painting for the church, as he subsequently did for the Church of St. Nicholas, the latter depicting the death of the Jesuit saint Francis Xavier. Palko’s works are also to be found in other Prague sites, including at Strahov Monastery, the Cistercian Abbey of Zbraslav, the Church of the Virgin Mary at the Theatines in the Lesser Quarter and the Church of Our Lady before Týn. Outside Prague he completed extensive works at nunneries in Doksany and in the Lusatian city of Marienthal. His works are also to be found in churches located in Czech towns and villages such as Liberec, Heřmanův Městec, Radotín and Rohatce. At the end of his life, František Karel Palko was active in Munich where he died after a long and painful illness in 1767.
For a long period of time, Palko’s artistic legacy had lived on primarily thanks to the fact that some of his drawings had been purchased by the leading Parisian art dealer, collector and expert Pierre Jean Mariette from the inheritance of Palko’s widow, Marie Anna Františka Ludmila Palková, née Burešová. A second batch of drawings was acquired by the Belgian Charles Antoine Lemoral de Ligne for his renowned collection. Five of these drawings found their way to the Viennese Albertina via the collection of Prince Albert Casimir of Saxony, Duke of Teschen. The presence of these sketches in international collections kept Palko’s reputation alive, even during times when any remaining knowledge of his work had all but disappeared.
Klára Garas, Antonio Galli Bibiena et Franz Karl Palko, in: Bulletin du Musée Hongrois des Beaux Arts, Budapest 1971, no. 37, p. 72, fig. 61.
Bruno Bushart, Der lyrische Maulbertsch. Festschrift Kurt Rossacher Imaginationen und Imago, Salzburg 1983, pp. 30, 39, 15.
Hubert Hosch, Franz Anton Maulberstch und Süddeutschland. Anmerkungen zu Ein- bzw Rückwirkungen und Fragen der Eigenhändigkeit. Schriften des Veriens für Geschichte des Bodensees und seiner Ungebungen, Friedrichshafen 1990, p. 173.
Pavel Preiss, František Karel Palko, Život a dílo malíře sklonku středoevropského baroka a jeho bratra Františka Antonína Palka, Prague 1999, pp. 40–41, p. 280.
Markgräfliche Badische Kunstsammlungen Baden-Baden, private collection.