The Unnamed Emmaus Disciple: Mary, wife of Cleopas?

Centuries of preaching and art have led us to assume without a thought that the two disciples who traveled from Jerusalem to Emmaus the Sunday after the Crucifixion, and dined there with the resurrected Christ, were men. Surely one of them was: the Bible tells us his name was Cleopas (Luke 24:18). But it leaves his companion unnamed.

Some Bible scholars have suggested that Cleopas’s fellow traveler was his wife, Mary. (N. T. WrightJames Montgomery Boice, and Jim Cole-Rous, to name just three, believe this to be the most reasonable interpretation, and many others, such as Wayne Grudem, consider it a possibility.)

Emmaus by Rowan and Irene LeCompte
Rowan LeCompte (American, 1925–2014) and Irene Matz LeCompte (American, 1926–1970), Third Station of the Resurrection: The Walk to Emmaus (detail), 1970. Mosaic, Resurrection Chapel, National Cathedral, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones

Their case is built by conflating the identities of “Mary, mother of James” (Matt. 27:56; Mark 15:40, 16:1; Luke 24:10), present at the Crucifixion and a witness of the empty tomb, and “Mary, wife of Clopas” (John 19:25), also present at the Crucifixion, and then recognizing “Clopas” as a variant spelling of “Cleopas.” Alphaeus—identified in Matthew 10:3, Mark 3:18, Luke 6:15, and Acts 1:13 as the father of James—is thought to be the Aramaic form of the name. These connections are well supported by church tradition, dating as far back as the second century.

If Cleopas’s wife, Mary, was in Jerusalem for Passover, it makes sense that she would have traveled back home to Emmaus (or stopped overnight in Emmaus en route to home) with her husband afterward. It wouldn’t have been unusual for a married couple, in this relatively private context, to converse with each other along the way about what they had experienced—the rabbi they had been following, dead, and rumored to have risen—and what it might mean.

Mary had seen the empty tomb with her own eyes and even encountered an angel who affirmed, “Christ is not here! He is risen!” But when she told the other disciples, they dismissed her account as too fantastic, perhaps instilling in her a new skepticism; she hadn’t, after all, seen the body. Or maybe her faith remained fortified, and her trip home was spent trying to convince her husband that Jesus was indeed alive.

Whatever the precise content of their discussion, a “stranger” sidled up alongside them, giving his own interpretation of the weekend’s events. They did not notice it was Jesus because “their eyes were kept from recognizing him.” It wasn’t until they arrived home with their newly invited guest in tow, put dinner on the table, and saw him bless the meal that “their eyes were opened.”

Although artistic portrayals of the Emmaus episode overwhelmingly cast a male as the second disciple, there are a few I’ve found that turn that presupposition on its head by casting a female, presumably Mary.  

The first one, which I found thanks to blogger Theresa Doyle-Nelson, is a contemporary icon by Sister Marie-Paul Farran, who lives at the Monastére des Bénédictines du Mont des Oliviers (Benedictine Monastery on the Mount of Olives) in Jerusalem. Born in Egypt of Palestinian and Italian descent, she has been painting for decades in the Byzantine style with the help of other nuns from her community, who prepare the wood panels and apply the gold leaf. One of the monastery’s main sources of income is the sale of Sr. Marie-Paul’s icons, both originals and reproductions, the latter of which can be bought through the Printery House, an online store run by Conception Abbey in Missouri.

Following the icons tradition, Christ’s cross-halo is inscribed with the Greek letters ώ Ό Ν (omega, omicron, nu), which mean “He who is” (see Exod. 3:14).

The Road to Emmaus by Sr. Marie-Paul Farran
The Road to Emmaus by Sr. Marie-Paul Farran, OSB

Barry Motes’s approach is much less austere, more comic. His Supper at Yummaus takes place at a rest-stop food court, and Christ’s blessing is pronounced over KFC combos. The painting is part of Motes’s Sacred Stories series, which translates biblical narratives into contemporary settings, using friends, family, and students as models.

Supper at Yummaus by Barry Motes
Barry Motes (American), Supper at Yummaus. Oil on canvas, 36 × 48 in.

The Spanish-born Maximino (“Mino”) Cerezo Barredo, CMF, is a Claretian priest and liberation theologian, as well as an artist known for his murals. He has traveled extensively throughout Latin America, living for extended periods in Peru, Brazil, Nicaragua, and Panama. In a 2012 interview he said, “What I want to convey through painting is God’s way of being that is embodied in the humanity of Jesus of Nazareth. He’s not a distant, absent God, but a God who became human in Jesus.” He also wants to convey “the paschal situation of the Latin American people—between life and death. A death that leads to the Resurrection.”

Cerezo has painted this subject multiple times, often with a female disciple. I think these are the only art images I’ve ever seen where Jesus’s nail wounds are placed on the wrists rather than on the palms! (This is one theory of where the nails were driven, or where they exited, so as to support the weight of an adult body on a cross.)

Emmaus by Maximino Cerezo Barredo
Maximino Cerezo Barredo (Spanish, 1932–), Emmaus, 2002. Painted mural, 200 × 190 cm. Dining room of the Centro de Formación de Animadores, Gatun Lake, Panama.


Supper at Emmaus by Maximino Cerezo Barredo
Maximino Cerezo Barredo (Spanish, 1932–), El reconegueren quan partia el pa [They Recognized Him When He Broke the Bread]. Acrylic on board, 350 × 350 cm. Saint Anthony Mary Claret Parish, Lleida, Catalonia, Spain. The title, painted on the book in the picture, is Catalan.


Supper at Emmaus by Maximino Cerezo Barredo
Maximino Cerezo Barredo (Spanish, 1932–), Emmaus. Acrylic on board, 90 × 120 cm. Dining room of the Claretian Community, Maranga, Lima, Peru.


Cerezo Barredo, Maximino_In the Breaking of Bread
Maximino Cerezo Barredo (Spanish, 1932–), In the Breaking of Bread, 2001. Acrylic on canvas, 90 × 120 cm. Claretian Provincial House, Oak Park, Chicago, Illinois, USA. Photo courtesy of the artist.


Cerezo Barredo, Maximino_Emmaus (Venezuela)
Maximino Cerezo Barredo (Spanish, 1932–), Emmaus, 2000. Acrylic on board, 180 × 100 cm. Noviciado Misioneras Claretianas (Novitiate Claretian Missionaries), Venezuela. Photo courtesy of the artist.


Cerezo Barredo, Maximino_Carvalhos Triptych
Maximino Cerezo Barredo (Spanish, 1932–), Emmaus (triptych), 2014. Carvalhos, Portugal. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Father John Giuliani is also a Catholic artist and priest, who in 1977 founded the Benedictine Grange, a religious center in West Redding, Connecticut. The son of Italian immigrants, he paints sacred figures from the Christian tradition with Native American faces. “In my work I try to celebrate a union of a common spiritual understanding,” he says, “to show how a single mystery can be approached through diverse cultures.” The painting below shows an Andean Cleopas, Mary (right), and Christ.

Emmaus by John Giuliani
John Giuliani (American, 1932–), Emmaus.

Jyoti Sahi is one of my artist friends from India, and he recently showed me this older painting of his that depicts the revelation of Jesus at Emmaus to a man and a woman. The three sit on the floor of a small roadside dwelling and share a plate of chapati. It is in the breaking of this flatbread that the two pilgrims realize that the man they’ve been conversing with is none other than the resurrected Christ, ablaze with glory. His flame-engulfed form evokes his earlier revelations as I AM in the burning bush before Moses (Exod. 3) and to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration, when “his face shone like the sun” (Matt. 17:2). No wonder, the astonished pilgrims remark, that their “hearts burn[ed] within” them (Luke 24:32) all the way down the road as he exposited the scriptures.

Sahi, Jyoti_Supper at Emmaus
Jyoti Sahi (Indian, 1944–), The Supper at Emmaus, 1980. Mixed media on canvas. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Jyoti told me that the figure in the doorway can be seen as the narrator of this episode, a sort of oral storyteller or proto-proclaimer of the kerygma that will follow in the book of Acts.

And lastly, there’s a mosaic in the crypt of Washington National Cathedral, part of a Stations of the Resurrection cycle, that shows the risen Christ conversing with Mary (wife of Cleopas) in the bottom half of the work, then revealing his identity to her in the upper half. The design was itself a collaboration between husband and wife.

Emmaus by Rowan and Irene LeCompte
Rowan LeCompte (American, 1925–2014) and Irene Matz LeCompte (American, 1926–1970), Third Station of the Resurrection: The Walk to Emmaus, 1970. Mosaic, Resurrection Chapel, National Cathedral, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones


Emmaus by Rowan and Irene LeCompte
Rowan LeCompte (American, 1925–2014) and Irene Matz LeCompte (American, 1926–1970), Third Station of the Resurrection: The Walk to Emmaus (detail), 1970. Mosaic, Resurrection Chapel, National Cathedral, Washington, DC. Photo: Victoria Emily Jones

In addition to these examples, I’ve come across several artistic representations in which the gender of the unnamed traveling companion is ambiguous—that is, while one is bearded and obviously male, the other is smooth-faced and has softer features, but the clothes are not form-fitting or distinct enough to determine whether it’s a he or a she. Such is the case with a stencil print by Sadao Watanabe; an early twentieth-century relief sculpture on the tympanum of St. Cleopas Church in Jerusalem’s West Bank; a stained glass window in First United Methodist Church in Galena, Illinois (see also this unidentified window); and a painting in St. Mary’s Church in Fredericksburg, Texas, among others. I have to imagine this was deliberate.

Maybe this ambiguity was intentional on the part of Luke as well. Religious studies professor John Gillman writes that Luke’s failure to identify the traveler by either name or gender may well be a strategy of inviting the reader to identify implicitly with that person and thus to make the journey as Cleopas’s companion.

Ultimately, we just don’t know who was with Cleopas that day, and we need not dizzy ourselves trying to figure it out. But I do think we should be careful with our gender assumptions. I’m thankful for the aforementioned artists, who by reimagining a traditionally male-dominated scene celebrate the legacy of “the other Mary,” recipient of divine revelation, preacher of the resurrection.

Note: The photo and description of Jyoti Sahi’s painting on the subject was added to this essay post-publication, on March 19, 2020. So were the final three images by Maximino Cerezo Barredo.

Addendum, August 29, 2021:

Laura James, Emmaus Story, 2000

24 thoughts on “The Unnamed Emmaus Disciple: Mary, wife of Cleopas?

  1. Thanks Victoria, Love your blogs. I imagine the road to Emmaus couple as husband & wife and will draw them that way when I get to that story. I just finished a story “Mary and the Gardener” where Mary wife of Cleopas makes a brief appearance. I stumbled on your blog a few months ago checking who else had illustrated Jesus as the Gardener. Here’s a couple if images. You can read the story at this link. . I hope to publish the book in time for Easter 2018 Regards Andrew McDonough


    Liked by 1 person

  2. I ADORE this blog entry, and will use much of your ideas and references in a sermon I am writing where I will speak from this “other Mary’s” perspective in full costume and character. Thank you for this gift!


  3. Together with 24 brothers and 25 brothers I founded Seb Emmaus 2012 Easter Season. Ever since I have fixed my gaze on the couple and researched for more on the unnamed silent disciple. Your blog helped me understand deeper and appreciate the nameless feminine. It is now clear for me – this is markedly couple spirituality, foundational to family spirituality. I thank you.


  4. Thanks for sharing your insights and all the the lovely artwork! You have inspired me to soon post my Emmaus drawing on my blog, which includes a female disciple.


  5. […] “The Unnamed Emmaus Disciple: Mary, wife of Cleopas?”: Written in 2017, this is one of Art & Theology’s most visited posts. In it I conjecture that the pilgrim who traveled with Cleopas from Jerusalem to Emmaus in the famous Easter story could have been a woman, perhaps Cleopas’s wife. Several artists have conjectured the same, and besides adding to this compilation three Emmaus paintings that the artist Maximino Cerezo Barredo sent me after the initial publication, I’ve also added one by Jyoti Sahi, which shows Jesus sitting with the two disciples—one male, one female—on the floor of a small roadside dwelling, breaking chapati (Indian flatbread) together. He is ablaze with glory, evoking his earlier revelations as I AM in the burning bush before Moses and to Peter, James, and John on Mount Tabor at the Transfiguration. […]


  6. […] Un’ultima idea. Anche se il testo lucano non dice nulla esplicitamente a riguardo, si sta facendo strada l’idea che i due di Emmaus non fossero discepoli maschi, come normalmente si intende, e come è stato poi reso dalla tradizione e dall’arte. E nemmeno vi sono indizi che questi arrivassero ad invitare Gesù a stare in una locanda. Piuttosto, si potrebbe vedere ora in quei due una coppia. La lettura della Parola di Dio, che è stata spesso condizionata dall’ambiente monastico in cui essa è stata a lungo praticata, si offre anche all’interpretazione in contesto familiare, e nulla vieta perché le coppie di sposi possano ritrovarsi pienamente nei panni di quei due – marito e moglie (solo il nome maschile viene dato da Luca) – che finalmente ritrovano in Gesù il senso della loro gioia. Per un orientamento su questo tema, si può visitare il sito internet: […]


  7. It is so obvious because the collection of comments can be arranged alternately between uplifted spirit and conclusive fact. Ms. Cleopas doesn’t want to let go of her hope but allows Mr. Cleopas have the the final word. That is, until the stranger turns them around.


  8. Hi, I see that you used Cerezo Barredo’s images by permission of the artist. Does that mean you have a method of contacting for this permission? I’d really love to hang a copy of the Emmaus Mural in my church office, but can’t seem to find prints anywhere. I’d love to place it with my Rublev Trinity icon and Laura James’ Jesus Washing the Discples Feet, as 3 representations of God’s hospitality and invitation into the life of the Spirit. Thanks!


  9. I often bring in discussion/discovery from art when I preach through the scriptures. I was looking for art and found your discussion here enlightening, and your art choices thought provoking. I am curious about your thoughts on the Barry Motes painting in regard to an important detail: Jesus in the picture has no legs? Gary Larson once fumbled a picture of a character seated very similarly, caught by time lines and struggle with perspective with, at that point in his career, no formal training and little experience. I find it difficult to believe that Mr. Motes would have such a struggle given how detailed his work is. Can you enlighten us? Is there some secret hidden message here?


    1. You know, I actually didn’t notice that before! I’ve seen surreal elements in a few of the artist’s other paintings (like “Water and Spirit”). Like you, I would assume the omission is intentional, but I’m not sure what the reasoning is, and I don’t even have any guesses.


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