While this lesson is written in relation to sixth-grade content standards, it should be adaptable to grades 2–8.
1. Begin by using the following questions to examine The Lansdowne Herakles.
Describe this sculpture. What can you say about this figure just by looking at it? (The figure is a strong man holding a club and a lion skin.) If the question of nudity comes up, mention that it is typical to see gods, heroes, or athletes in the nude in ancient Greek and Roman statues. The ancient Greeks strove to attain perfection of both body and mind.
What words would you use to describe the sculpture? (Words such as calm, relaxed, strong might come up.)
Discuss the pose of the figure. Have students take this stance. Describe what is happening with the body. (This is called the contrapposto stance. This term describes the asymmetrical but balanced stance in which a straight, weight-bearing leg is opposed to a bent, resting limb. It gives the figure a casual, lively look as opposed to a figure who stands with both feet together with the knees locked. Here we see Herakles in a relaxed stance, despite the fact that he has just killed the Nemean Lion with his bare hands.)
In ancient Greece a hero was someone of half-mortal, half-divine parentage who was set apart by the great deeds and glory of his life. In this sculpture we see the hero Herakles. What clues does the artist include to let us know this is Herakles? (The club and the lion skin, and the fact that he is shown in the nude.)
2. Explain the concept of "attributes" to students and the specific attributes included in this sculpture of Herakles. Refer to the Information and Questions for Teaching in the Image Bank for more information (follow link in Materials section, above). Attributes are clues artists give to help viewers identify the subject. The club in Herakles's left hand and the skin of the Nemean Lion are trophies from the first labor that Herakles had to perform for King Eurystheus of Tiryns and Mycenae. The most common story tells that Hera, queen of the gods, drove Herakles mad. In a fit of insanity he killed his wife and children. As part of his penance, Herakles had to perform 12 labors, feats so difficult that they seemed impossible. With the help of Hermes and Athena, Herakles completed these labors and became, without a doubt, Greece's greatest hero.
3. Compare other images of Herakles from the Getty Museum's collection. You can find examples by searching in the Getty's collections online. For example:
Boy with Dragon by Lorenzo Bernini may depict the infant Herakles demonstrating his divine strength by slaying a poisonous serpent.
On the Cabinet on a Stand by André-Charles Boulle, one of the figures supporting the cabinet is Herakles, wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion.
How are the different depictions of Herakles similar to and different from the ancient Roman sculpture? (In the Roman sculpture Herakles is relaxed and calm. His strength is expressed through his musculature and his attributes, which tell us about his deeds. In the two works of art from the 17th century, Herakles is depicted mid-action yet his calm face reveals he does not have to exert much effort. In both works he is showing his strength in an active, tangible way.)
4. Discuss the idea of heroes from the past and present with the following ideas and questions.
In ancient Greece and Rome, a hero was set apart by their strength and their achievements, which far surpassed ordinary mortals. These heroes where demigods of half-mortal, half-divine parentage.
How do we define a hero today? As a group, come up with some traits of modern heroes. (Today someone performing courageous deeds is often seen as heroic. Often, people whose professions include saving lives are considered heroic.)
List some modern-day heroes, both real and fictional. (Sometimes people look at sports figures as heroes. We might also think of fictional heroes or superheroes, such as Superman, Spiderman, etc.)
What attributes identify some of the modern heroes you discussed?
5. From the class discussion, generate a list of modern heroes on the board, along with their attributes.
6. Have each student come up with a modern hero that he or she will immortalize in a sculpture. If a student cannot think of a hero from today, he or she can create his or her own hero using the traits that were discussed for a modern hero. Have the students think about what their heroes' attributes would be.
7. Have students sketch out how they think they want their hero to look, along with their attributes. Remind them that a sculpture is three-dimensional and can be seen from all sides. They must think beyond the front of their figures. Have students think about the pose their heroes will take. Will it be relaxed and confident like Herakles? Or will the hero show power and strength in his or her pose?
8. Pass out self-hardening clay and have students begin work on their sculpture. Remind them to keep turning their piece while they work, so that they pay attention to all sides.
9. Once students are finished, bring all of the sculptures together and see if the students can tell something about the heroes that their peers have created just by looking at the sculptures' poses, gestures, and attributes.
History—Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools
6.4 Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures of the early civilizations of Ancient Greece.
4. Explain the significance of Greek mythology to the everyday life of people in the region and how Greek literature continues to permeate our literature and language today, drawing from Greek mythology and epics, such as Homer's Iliad and Odyssey, and from Aesop's Fables.
Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools
1.0 Artistic Perception
Processing, Analyzing, and Responding to Sensory Information Through the Language and Skills Unique to the Visual Arts
Develop Perceptual Skills and Visual Arts Vocabulary
1.3 Describe how artists can show the same theme by using different media and styles.
2.0 Creative Expression
Creating, Performing, and Participating in the Visual Arts
Communication and Expression Through Original Works of Art
2.4 Create increasingly complex original works of art reflecting personal choices and increased technical skill.
2.5 Select specific media and processes to express moods, feelings, themes, or ideas.
3.0 Historical and Cultural Context
Understanding the Historical Contributions and Cultural Dimensions of the Visual Arts
Role and Development of the Visual Arts
3.1 Research and discuss the role of the visual arts in selected periods of history, using a variety of resources (both print and electronic).
3.2 View selected works of art from a culture and describe how they have changed or not changed in theme and content over a period of time.