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Museum Home Education Search Lesson Plans All Curricula Looking at Illuminated Manuscripts: Lessons and Ideas for Discussion Lesson Plans Looking at Illuminated Manuscripts: Illuminating Fables
Looking at Illuminated Manuscripts: Illuminating Fables

Grades/Level: Lower Elementary (K–2)
Subjects: Visual Arts, English–Language Arts
Time Required: 2–Part Lesson
Two to three class periods
Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff

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Lesson Overview

Students will examine a manuscript page from a Flemish bestiary and discuss how it was used to teach ideas about Christianity. Students will then compare the stories from the bestiary to the fables of Aesop, and culminate with the creation of their own manuscript based on a fable by Aesop.

Learning Objectives

Students should be able to:
• learn how stories from a bestiary and fables were written to teach lessons.
• compare stories from a bestiary to fables by Aesop.
• create their own illuminated manuscript page based on a fable by Aesop.


• Image of Two Fishermen on a Sea Creature
• Heavyweight drawing paper, drawing pencils, metallic crayons (gold or silver), watercolors, watercolor brushes or soft paintbrushes, water containers

Lesson Steps

1. Examine the image Two Fishermen on a Sea Creature using the following questions. Have the students use art vocabulary to discuss what they see in the image, such as the artist's use of colors and lines to create the image.
• What do you see happening in this image?
• How does the artist communicate the action in the image?
• Why do you think the artist let the tail of the whale and mast of the ship go outside of the framed space of the illumination?
• This page is from a book called a bestiary, or book of beasts. It is filled with stories that teach moral lessons through images of real and imaginary beasts. What do you think the moral lesson of this story might be?
• What other stories can you think of that were created to teach lessons? (Fables by Aesop, folktales, and parables.)

2. Read the following fable by Aesop with the students and compare it to the story about the fisherman and the whale.

The Cat and the Mice
There was once a house that was overrun with mice. A cat heard of this, and said to herself, "That's the place for me," and off she went and took up her quarters in the house, and caught the mice one by one and ate them.
At last the mice could stand it no longer, and they determined to take to their holes and stay there.
"That's awkward," said the cat to herself. "The only thing to do is to coax them out by a trick." So she considered a while, and then climbed up the wall and let herself hang down by her hind legs from a peg, and pretended to be dead. By and by a mouse peeped out and saw the cat hanging there. "Aha!" it cried, "You're very clever, madam, no doubt. But you may turn yourself into a bag of meal hanging there, if you like, yet you won't catch us coming anywhere near you."

If you are wise, you won't be deceived by the innocence of those whom you have once found to be dangerous.

• In what ways is the deception in this fable by Aesop similar to the deception of the whale in the bestiary? In what ways is it different?

3. Look at other fables by Aesop and discuss the lessons that they were meant to teach. Choose from many different fables such as the following: The Crow and the Pitcher; The Fox and the Crow; The Fox and the Grapes; and The Hare and the Tortoise can be found in Open Court curriculum, Level 1, Book 1 for First Grade. The Cat and the Mice is found in Level 1, Book 2. Open Court Level 3, Book 2 also contains The Country Mouse and the City Mouse. You can, of course, also do an Internet search for other fables by Aesop.

4. Explain to the class that they are going to create their own manuscript, like the bestiary, based on Aesop's fables.

5. Assign a group of about four students to a single fable. Then instruct the students that each of them will choose a scene from the fable to illustrate.

6. Have the students fold their papers vertically into thirds. Instruct the students to create their illuminations in the top two-thirds of the paper, leaving the bottom third blank for the text of the story to be written in. In the top two-thirds have them measure a frame for their illumination that is an inch-and-a-half from the edges of the page. This space will also allow for the pages to be bound together to form a book.

7. Have the students rule lines on the bottom third of the paper to make space for the text, which they will fill in. Once their lines are ruled, have them begin to copy the text of the scene they are going to illustrate in their illumination.

8. Once they have finished writing their texts, the students can begin sketching in their illuminations using pencil. Remind them of Two Fishermen on a Sea Creature and how the artist used line and color to create his image and how he was inventive in having the image spill outside of the frame. Ask them to think about how they will incorporate these elements into their illumination.

9. Once they have finished their drawings, have them use a silver or gold crayon to color in the background areas of their scene, simulating the use of gold in many illuminated manuscripts.

10. Once they have colored their backgrounds, have them paint in the rest of their scenes using watercolors. They don't need to be too careful with the watercolors in relation to the background, as the crayons will resist the watercolor where it touches the crayon marks.

Fishermen / Unknown
Two Fishermen on a Sea Creature, Flemish, about 1270


Display each student's page and discuss as a group the ways in which each student chose to depict his or her scene. How do the scenes work together to illustrate each fable? Have the students use their art vocabulary to describe their use of color and line in their images.


The animals in the bestiary were given moral meanings that were meant to teach lessons. What types of meanings do we assign to animals today? (Dogs mean loyalty, cats are thought of as independent, owls are considered wise, and elephants have great memory.) Where do these ideas come from? Is there any truth to these ideas? Discuss.

Standards Addressed

English–Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools
Grade 2

Narrative Analysis of Grade-Level-Appropriate Text
3.1 Compare and contrast plots, settings, and characters presented by different authors.
3.3 Compare and contrast different versions of the same stories that reflect different cultures.

1.2 Create readable documents with legible handwriting.

Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools
Grade 2

Skills, Processes, Materials, and Tools
2.2 Demonstrate beginning skill in the use of art media, such as oil pastels, watercolors, and tempera.

Make Informed Judgments
4.3 Use the vocabulary of art to talk about what they wanted to do in their own works of art and how they succeeded.
4.4 Use appropriate vocabulary of art to describe the successful use of an element of art in a work of art.

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