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The Arkansas Art Conference has been fun, frenetic and full of activity. The first evening here in Little Rock we attended a wonderful reception for Arkansas art teachers at the Arkansas Art Center and were treated to a special tour of the works of Andrew Wyeth. Wyeth is one of my favorite artists and it was wonderful to be able to be so close to his work. Also included in the show were illustrated letters Wyeth had written to friends.

But the highlight of the conference so far has been the thought provoking message of the keynote speaker, Rika Burnham, Associate Museum Educator, Metropolitan Museum of Art.

I don’t know exactly what I was expecting when I settled down to listen to Ms. Burnham’s speech but it definitely wasn’t the quite profound, inspirational and amazing presentation she delivered.

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Ms. Burnham has been a member of the teaching staff at the Met since 1978. She instructs students, docents, and teachers in the appreciation and understanding of the collections of the Museum, and coordinates the after school programs Free Classes for High School Students and the Metropolitan Museum of Art: A place for Junior High School students.

Rika Burnham presented a slide show presentation about how to approach individual reactions to works of art by young students. She featured three artists in her slide show, Caravaggio being the most memorable and striking element of her talk. Ms Burnham presented Caravaggio’s work, The Supper at Emmaus.

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Two of Jesus’ disciples were walking to Emmaus after the Crucifixion when the resurrected Jesus himself drew near and went with them, but they did not recognize him. At supper that evening in Emmaus ‘… he took bread, and blessed it, and brake and gave to them. And their eyes were opened, and they knew him; and he vanished out of their sight’ (Luke 24: 30-31). Christ is shown at the moment of blessing the bread and revealing his true identity to the two disciples.

Caravaggio’s innovative treatment of the subject makes this one of his most powerful works. The depiction of Christ is unusual in that he is beardless and great emphasis is given to the still life on the table. The intensity of the emotions of Christ’s disciples is conveyed by their gestures and expression. The viewer too is made to feel a participant in the event.

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Ms. Burnham told us that when she introduced The Supper at Emmaus to her young high school students she didn’t tell them what the painting was about or who Caravaggio was depicting.

She encouraged speculation. Some of her students thought the subject of the painting was a woman. The discussion featured talk about the strong emotions that were represented in the painting by the figures on the sides and the fact that the figure in the middle seemed to command all the attention.

When the discussion was finished Ms. Burnham revealed the name and subject matter of the painting. The students had received a posteriori knowledge in a similar way that the disciples who had taken the walk with the stranger to Emmaus had experienced.

After a full discussion of the elements of the painting the students eyes were opened to the truth of the work…..just as it happened with the two disciples of Christ. After taking bread with Him their eyes were opened to the truth of His presence.

Which is what, Ms. Burnham speculated, Caravaggio intended.

Art in its most majestic rendering opens our eyes to truth. This conference has reminded me about why I love art.