Grades/Level: High School (9–12)
Subjects: Visual Arts, English–Language Arts
Time Required: Single Class Lesson
1 class period and homework
Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff

For the Classroom


Lesson Plans

Lesson Overview

Students identify the narrative elements in a work of art and learn how artists use symbolic imagery to communicate the larger narrative of a person's life. Students then write their own narratives about an historic figure and use visual symbols to create an image about that person that communicates important events in his or her personal narrative.

Learning Objectives

Students should be able to:
• interpret narratives depicted in a work of art.
• write a biographical narrative about an historic person.
• develop visual symbols that represent moments in a narrative and use these symbols to create an image based on a written narrative.

Materials

• Reproduction of The Birth of Alexander by the Master of the Jardin de vertueuse consolation
• Background information about The Birth of Alexander, found by clicking on the thumbnail below
• Background information about illuminated manuscripts See About Illuminated Manuscripts in the Getty's online curriculum Looking at Manuscripts
• Supplies appropriate for making a two-dimensional work of art on paper, such as pencils, crayons, markers, paint, and/or collage materials

Lesson Steps

1. Begin the lesson with a 30-second look exercise, using a reproduction of The Birth of Alexander from The Book of the Deeds of Alexander the Great. (Instructions for this exercise are available in this lesson:Thirty-Second Look.)

After students have discussed their first impressions, and you have gone back to the image for a second look, tell them that they will be discussing the narrative aspects of the painting. Use the following cues and questions:
• On the left side of the image, a newborn baby sits on his mother's lap. What do the gestures of the other women tell us about their reaction to the child?
• Find the dragon, two roosters, and a burning building. These are all symbolic elements that convey information about the main character of this story, Alexander the Great. The roosters represent the two continents he ruled; the dragon recalls his supposed divine parentage (according to myth, he was fathered by Zeus, who appeared to Alexander's mother as a Dragon); and the burning building represents a temple in Turkey that supposedly burned to ground on the day he was born, signaling his future dominion over that country.
• Think about what symbols an artist might use today to represent these same concepts so that a contemporary viewer would more easily understand them.
• The artist has set the scene in his own region and time period: 15th-century Flanders (modern-day Belgium). Why do you think an artist would portray an ancient story using clothing and architecture of his or her own time? Can you think of any examples today of an artist depicting ancient stories as if they happened today?

2. Use information found on the Getty's Web site about the image The Birth of Alexander to tell students about the social and historical context in which this painting was made, as well as the materials used to make it.

Below is more information about Alexander:
Alexander was born in 356 B.C. and grew up to be king of Macedonia. During his short life he conquered many lands. At the time of his death at age 32 in 323 B.C., his empire covered Greece, Asia Minor, the Middle East, and parts of India. Stories about Alexander's conquests began to be told during his lifetime, and were retold long after his death. Many of the stories were exaggerations; some were entirely made up. For example, it is said that his adventures included flying and traveling underwater.

3. Have students think about how why stories like Alexander's were told with images using the following cues and questions:
• In 15th century Flanders, most people couldn't read or write. What types of people do you think had access to education and why?
• Miniatures (small paintings found in books) were a primary art form of the Middle Ages and early Renaissance in Europe. The materials used in making illuminated manuscripts were costly, and the process was time consuming. Looking at this image, what materials do you think were used to make manuscripts and how might they have been made?

4. Homework: Have students choose a figure from history that they feel is important. For example, the person can be an athlete, entertainer, politician, humanitarian, artist, or any other figure the student admires. Students will research their historic figures and write a narrative biography of grade-appropriate length that recounts important details of the person's life. Tell students this is an exercise in myth building, so they should fell free to embellish the accomplishments of their figure in any way that strengthens the narrative aspect of this assignment.

5. After students complete their stories, tell them they will make a book out of them. As a "frontispiece" to the biography, each student will design an illustration of his or her person's birth using an approach similar to that which the Master of the Jardin de vertueuse consolation used to create his image of The Birth of Alexander.

6. Students should each identify at least three aspects of their subject's "mythology" from their biographies and think about how to represent these in visual symbols within their birth scene. Tell students that the goal of their frontispieces is to teach future generations about the accomplishments of their chosen subject.

7. Have students attach the image to the biography and share their books through display or by making them available in some other way to the class.

Birth of Alexander / M. Jardin vertueuse consolation
The Birth of Alexander, from The Book of the Deeds of Alexander the Great, workshop of the Master of the Jardin de vertueuse consolation, about 1468–1475

Standards Addressed

Visual Arts Standards for California Public Schools
Grades 9–12

1.5 Analyze the material used by a given artist and describe how its use influences the meaning of the work.

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.

5.2 Create a work of art that communicates a cross-cultural or universal theme taken from literature or history.

English—Language Arts Standards for California Public Schools
Grades 9–10

2.1 Write biographical or autobiographical narratives or short stories:
a. Relate a sequence of events and communicate the significance of the events to the audience.
b. Locate scenes and incidents in specific places.
c. Describe with concrete sensory details the sights, sounds, and smells of a scene and the specific actions, movements, gestures, and feelings of the characters; use interior monologue to depict the characters' feelings.
d. Pace the presentation of actions to accommodate changes in time and mood.
e. Make effective use of descriptions of appearance, images, shifting perspectives, and sensory details.

Grades 11–12
2.1 Write fictional, autobiographical, or biographical narratives:
a. Narrate a sequence of events and communicate their significance to the audience.
b. Locate scenes and incidents in specific places.
c. Describe with concrete sensory details the sights, sounds, and smells of a scene and the specific actions, movements, gestures, and feelings of the characters; use interior monologue to depict the characters' feelings.
d. Pace the presentation of actions to accommodate temporal, spatial, and dramatic mood changes.
e. Make effective use of descriptions of appearance, images, shifting perspectives, and sensory details.

2.3 Write reflective compositions:
a. Explore the significance of personal experiences, events, conditions, or concerns by using rhetorical strategies (e.g., narration, description, exposition, persuasion).
b. Draw comparisons between specific incidents and broader themes that illustrate the writer's important beliefs or generalizations about life.
c. Maintain a balance in describing individual incidents and relate those incidents to more general and abstract ideas.