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Museum Home Education Search Lesson Plans All Curricula Gods, Heroes and Monsters: Mythology in European Art Lesson Plans Referencing the Classical Past
Referencing the Classical Past

Grades/Level: Middle School (6–8), High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts, History–Social Science
Time Required: 2–Part Lesson
1–2 class periods
Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff

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About Greek and Roman Mythology

Lesson Overview

Students discuss the sculptural group of Three Goddesses by Joseph Nollekens. They then discuss the 18th-century tradition of the Grand Tour and consider why wealthy 18th-century Europeans and people today seek associations with the classical past.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
• talk about the original contexts of works of art.
• explain what the Grand Tour was.
• give reasons why people have looked to the art and literature of ancient Greece and Rome for centuries as a source of inspiration.


• Image of Three Goddesses by Joseph Nollekens
• Handout: The Judgment of Paris
• Handout: About the Grand Tour

Lesson Steps

1. Begin by describing the three figures in Nollekens' sculpture group.
• What attributes does each figure have that might give clues about who she is? (The woman to the left has a crown on her head, the woman in the middle is shown in the nude, and the woman on the right wears a helmet and holds a shield. They are, from left to right, the goddess Juno, queen of the gods; Venus, goddess of beauty and love; and Minerva, goddess of wisdom, the arts, and war.)
• While these sculptures are inspired by works from ancient Greece or Rome, they were actually made in the 1770s. How are these sculptures different from ancient statues you see in museums today? (They are in excellent condition. None of their limbs have broken off. Almost all ancient sculptures have not survived without some damage.)
• By examining their gestures and poses, what do you think they are doing? (They are in various stages of undress. Minerva reaches for her helmet, Juno begins to disrobe, and Venus will be completely undressed once she has removed her sandal.)

2. These three goddesses were once part of a sculpture group that represented the story about the judgment of Paris. Read the excerpt from the story on the student handout, The Judgement of Paris, in Materials section above, then examine the sculptures again and ask students to try and determine what moment in the story they represent.
• These sculptures were originally displayed in a room along with a statue of Paris offering the apple. Each goddess was placed on a wall of the room, facing Paris. Today the goddesses are displayed in a different grouping without the sculpture of Paris. How does the way we interpret the group change without Paris? Without the figure of Paris, does the work clearly communicate who these women are and what they are doing?
• How do the sculptures interact with each other in this arrangement?
• Charles Watson-Wentworth, second Marquess of Rockingham, commissioned the three statues from English sculptor Joseph Nollekens. Why do you think the Marquess of Rockingham would commission a sculptural group representing the Judgment of Paris? What does that say about his tastes and interests? (The Marquess assembled this group and other works in his Neoclassical sculpture gallery as a testament to his classical education and the taste he developed during his Grand Tour of Italy at age 18. This group was intended to serve as a conversation piece, both literally and figuratively, since the statues are actually communicating amongst themselves through pose and gesture.)

3. Explain the concept of the Grand Tour in 18th-century European society to students using information and the image of John Talbot by Pompeo Batoni in the student handout The Grand Tour. You may also want to explore the Web presentation on this Web site, Italy on the Grand Tour.

4. After discussing the Grand Tour, examine the portrait of John Talbot, later 1st Earl Talbot.
• What can we tell about this man just by looking at him? (He looks young and confident; his pose is relaxed.)
• Describe the objects that surround him. What do they say about the sitter, John Talbot? (Like Charles Watson Wentworth, John Talbot associates himself with the classical past by surrounding himself with allusions to his interest in classical antiquity. The Ludovisi Mars statue on the left and the Medici Vase on the right represent two of Rome's most popular and important works of art. The broken capital in the left foreground and the base of a column at the right refer to Rome's classical architectural heritage.)

5. Why do you think wealthy Europeans wanted to be so closely associated with the classical past? Discuss.

6. Ask students to consider the events that were happening around the world at the time when Three Goddesses and the portrait of John Talbot were made. (Notice that the sculpture of Juno was completed in 1776.)
• Can you think of other countries during this time period that included references to the classical past in their government and in their architecture? (The United States based its constitution, including a tripartite government that incorporates checks and balances, on the governments of ancient Greece and Rome. The U.S. also looked back to antiquity as its prototype for a new democratic system, free of monarchical rule. The architecture chosen for government buildings by the founding fathers of this country incorporate designs and motifs of classical architecture to symbolize the classical roots of the government.)

7. Discuss why it is still important to have knowledge of the classics today. (Ancient mythology, in particular the stories supposedly written down by Homer, are often referenced even in our current times. Discuss the reinterpretation of classical stories in the movies—for example, the movie Troy. The myths are examples of morality that are still valid today.)
• What can we learn today from epics such as the Iliad and the Odyssey? (These stories allude to "the glorious past," reflect personal journeys, and are stories in which foolish and wicked people are punished, but the brave and daring are richly rewarded. They demonstrate that ordinary mortals can get caught up in extraordinary events.)
• Do we have myths today? What purposes do they serve? (All mythologies embody the ideals of the cultures from which they stem. They tell of beginnings and ends, and about creation and destruction.)
• Have students think about uniquely American myths and discuss their meaning and significance in our own culture. For example, the myth about George Washington chopping down the cherry tree communicates an American value of honesty.

Three Goddesses / Nollekens
Three Goddesses, Joseph Nollekens, 1773–1776


Students will be graded on their participation in class discussion.


• Read the story of the Judgment of Paris from Ovid's Metamorphoses. If you were going to create a sculptural group based on this story, what characters from the story would you include? Would you choose to represent the actual judgment scene or another scene from the story?

• Have the students individually research the sites that were a part of the Grand Tour, and explore what they meant to an 18th-century audience.

Standards Addressed

English—Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grades 11–12

3.0 Literary Response and Analysis
3.6 Analyze the way in which authors through the centuries have used archetypes drawn from myth and tradition in literature, film, political speeches, and religious writings (e.g., how the archetypes of banishment from an ideal world may be used to interpret Shakespeare's tragedy Macbeth).
3.7 Analyze recognized works of world literature from a variety of authors:
a. Contrast the major literary forms, techniques, and characteristics of the major literary periods (e.g., Homeric Greece, medieval, romantic, neoclassic, modern).

Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 7

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 describe how art reflects cultural values in various traditions throughout the world.

Diversity of the Visual Arts
3.2 Compare and contrast works of art from various periods, styles, and cultures and explain how those works reflect the society in which they were made.

Grades 9–12
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 Identify similarities and differences in the purposes of art created in selected cultures.

Diversity of the Visual Arts
3.3 Identify and describe trends in the visual arts and discuss how the issues of time, place, and cultural influence are reflected in selected works of art.

4.0 Aesthetic Valuing

Responding to, Analyzing, and Making Judgments About Works in the Visual Arts

Derive Meaning
4.1 Articulate how personal beliefs, cultural traditions, and current social, economic, and political contexts influence the interpretation of the meaning or message in a work of art.
4.2 Compare the ways in which the meaning of a specific work of art has been affected over time because of changes in interpretation and context.

History—Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 6

6.7 Students analyze the geographic, political, economic, religious, and social structures during the development of Rome.
2. Describe the government of the Roman Republic and its significance (e.g., written constitution and tripartite government, checks and balances, civic duty).
8. Discuss the legacies of Roman art and architecture, technology and science, literature, language, and law.

Grade 7
7.11 Students analyze political and economic change in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries (the Age of Exploration, the Enlightenment, and the Age of Reason).
4. Explain how the main ideas of the Enlightenment can be traced back to such movements as the Renaissance, the Reformation, and the Scientific Revolution and to the Greeks, Romans, and Christianity.

Grades 9–12
Historical Interpretation
1. Students show the connections, causal and otherwise, between particular historical events and larger social, economic, and political trends and developments.
2. Students recognize the complexity of historical causes and effects, including the limitations on determining cause and effect.

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