The commotion began when the 4th graders, on a field trip from St. Michael's School in Red Bank, New Jersey, stopped to look at the early Renaissance painting Madonna and Child by Duccio di Buoninsegna.
"It's the face of the Blessed Virgin. Clear as day!" exclaimed Hester Rickle, the children's chaperone, "Right there! It's a sign from above, I tell you, a miracle — a miracle!"
By the time museum personnel stepped in, Ms. Rickle's annunciation of her vision had drawn a sizable crowd. While museum guards kept additional onlookers at bay, Ms. Rickle and several of the children knelt prayerfully, some clutching rosaries.
Ms. Rickle refused to leave her vigil, despite associate curator of European paintings Gale Lilio's assurances that, "Well, yes, it is the face of the Virgin Mary you're seeing in the painting because it's a painting of the Virgin Mary," adding, "That face has been there for 700 years."
Ms. Rickle took this news as further proof of the divine nature of her vision, "Saints be praised!" she shouted, "They see it too! All can share this wondrous gift from heaven!" Ms. Lilio sighed deeply and, as she went for help, was heard muttering, "For this I got a Ph.D. in art history?"
At least one of the students, however, was neither moved or surprised by Ms. Rickle's vision. Said Thomas Dougherty, age 9, "It's like our field trip to the Pepperidge Farm factory when she saw St. Francis of Assisi on a burnded Goldfish cracker."
Museum officials' immediate concern was the danger posed by an impromptu shrine of votive candles and offerings of flowers, photographs and teddy bears in front of the painting. "Any more candles and they'll trigger the sprinkler system," said Ms. Lilio, perusing the growing pile of devotional ephemera, "This stuff didn't even come from our gift shop. I don't know how it got in here."