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Video transcript

STEVEN ZUCKER: We're in the National Gallery in London, and we're looking at one of the great Caravaggios. This is the "Supper at Emmaus." It dates to about 1601, and it's a large painting. BETH HARRIS: It is large. STEVEN ZUCKER: And it's horizontal. And the figures are actually life size so that there's a real sense of our proximity, our presence at this table. BETH HARRIS: There's even a space for us. And the story is that Christ has been crucified, and his disciples are walking along a road. A man joins them. When they all sit down for dinner, this third man breaks the bread and at that moment is revealed to be the resurrected Christ. STEVEN ZUCKER: And we're seeing the reaction of those two disciples. BETH HARRIS: The moment when they recognize him. We have a split second in time and this high drama. STEVEN ZUCKER: The disciple on the left in the tattered green shirt or jacket looks into the table, seated at the table as we are. So his reaction is our reaction as we look to Christ. BETH HARRIS: I love this gesture that he makes, this figure in the left corner. He's so taken aback. He's frightened. He's moving his chair like, holy cow, interested and frightened at the same time. STEVEN ZUCKER: That's right, drawn back and drawn in-- BETH HARRIS: Forward, right. STEVEN ZUCKER: --simultaneously. And in fact, the entire painting draws forward and back simultaneously. Our eyes go into Christ. And in fact, both of the apostles frame our vision as we move towards that center. In other words, the whole painting is a kind of triangle of vision that moves into Christ's face. At the same moment, all of their hands-- or I should say, the left hand the apostle on the right and Christ's right hand both move out towards us, literally embracing us and inviting us visually into the image. BETH HARRIS: Well, I mean he couldn't be trying to do that more. It's not just in the hand, it's everywhere. I mean, look at that basket of fruit in the front-- STEVEN ZUCKER: The still life, yeah. BETH HARRIS: --that hangs off the table. Caravaggio was trying to make this painting burst into our space in every possible way he can to make it immediate and real and emotional for us. STEVEN ZUCKER: You know, I want to join that table. And of course, there's all of the sort of complexity of the emotions of the figures, which are of course the majority of the painting and the painting's purpose. But then there's a tremendous amount of attention that's paid to the still life. And look at the chicken, it looks good. BETH HARRIS: It does. The bread, the fruit. STEVEN ZUCKER: I wouldn't mind having the fruit. It's all beautiful. BETH HARRIS: It is that physicality that we expect of Caravaggio. STEVEN ZUCKER: Well, look, for instance, at the specificity of the joinery in the furniture. If you look at the chair on the left, the very technique of its construction is revealed to us. Everything in this painting is revealed and opened up to us. And yet, the painting's also incredibly focused. Where are we? We're in a kind of shallow space. It's quite dark. And he is really attending to our focus, making sure that our eye goes only where he wants it. BETH HARRIS: Well, and he puts the light there, that sharp light, almost theatrical light, on the left side of Christ's face. And what I'm also struck by is the thing that we always see with Caravaggio too, of the ordinariness of the figures. The apostle on the right looks like he has a bit of a cold. His nose is all red. STEVEN ZUCKER: It's true. BETH HARRIS: The apostle on the left-- STEVEN ZUCKER: In green BETH HARRIS: --the tear in his clothing. They're poor. That's what the apostles were, right? STEVEN ZUCKER: It's a rough and tumble world. And they're not in a church, they're in an inn. And so we have the innkeeper and quite plain furniture, quite a plain place setting. This is not the pomp and ceremony that we might see Christ represented when he's represented in a church-like setting. BETH HARRIS: As is also so typical of baroque and is so perfectly represented here, that moment when the divine enters the everyday world. STEVEN ZUCKER: Making the miraculous, the spiritual, immediate in our modern world. BETH HARRIS: And so immediately, physically, realistically in our space present. STEVEN ZUCKER: That was such a goal of the Counter-Reformation of the moment in which this painting was made. BETH HARRIS: Confirming and reaffirming and strengthening our faith.