Grades/Level: Middle School (6–8)
Subjects: Visual Arts, History–Social Science
Time Required: 2–Part Lesson
2–3 class periods
Author: This lesson was adapted by J. Paul Getty Museum Education staff from a curriculum originally published on the Getty's first education website, ArtsEdNet.

For the Classroom

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Lesson Overview

In this lesson students learn about the important role of religious artworks in the early Renaissance in Italy. Through the visual analysis of an early Renaissance altarpiece, they learn about connections between new modes of visual representation and changing religious practice in the Catholic Church. Students research an early Renaissance artist working in Florence who created devotional, religious imagery and write a short paper.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:
• explain how space, scale, and proportion were used in new ways by artists working during the early Renaissance.
• discuss the religious significance of the artistic innovations of the early Renaissance.
• research and write about an early Renaissance artist, focusing on religious works made by the artist and the artist's connections to the Catholic Church.


• Reproduction of Madonna, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Paul by Bernardo Daddi
• Paper and pencils
• Resources about the early Renaissance in Italy:

Lesson Steps

1. Begin by showing students the image Madonna, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Paul by Bernardo Daddi. Instruct students to look closely at the image. Use the following questions to discuss the artwork.
• What do you find interesting about this image? Describe what you see to the class.
• Who do you think the subjects in this artwork are? (Students may have generic answers like "two men, and a woman." The man with a sword may seem like a soldier to them.) What do you see that tells you this? (Halos, books, the arched format, hand gestures, and robes are clues to the religious nature of the artwork.)
• What do you think the relationship between the three figures is? What do you see that makes you say this? (The woman is bigger and in the center, and thus more important than the men.) Does this work present enough information for us to know who is portrayed in this work? (The Madonna [or Virgin Mary] and two saints are depicted.) Do you think a viewer who isn't Catholic would understand who these people are?
• What materials do you think the artist used when making this work? (gold, wood, paint)
• Do you think this work has a message? What? What do you see that makes you say this? What message does the work convey to you?
• What do you think was the purpose of this image? What visual clues tell you this? (prayer, spiritual contemplation)

2. Ask students to consider how the artist used the elements of art—line, shape/form, color, space, and texture—to create this image. Use the following questions for discussion:
• Which elements of art do you see? Where do you see these elements? (Students will find it easy to point out examples of texture, color, shape, and form. Space will be more difficult for them to see.)
• How has the artist rendered space in this work? (The image mixes flattened space with three-dimensional space. The gold background pushes the background forward, creating a shallow space. Yet, the pedestals the two men stand on are painted in perspective, giving a sense of recession. The Madonna also reaches her hand over the panel in front of her, as if reaching into our space.)
• Do the figures seem natural or lifelike to you? What do you see that makes you say this? (The shadows on the faces and drapery, called modeling, make them seem lifelike and three-dimensional. But the pattern on the Madonna's dress flattens her body. Her solid blue cape and the solid black cape of Saint Thomas also look flat.)
• Look at the proportion, or scale, of the figures to one another. Are the figures proportioned in a realistic way? What do you see that makes you say this? (The female figure is much larger than the two men on either side of her.) Why do you think the figures are proportioned like this? (The Madonna is the focus of the painting, and of two saints' attention. Her size indicates her relative importance.)

3. Share the following background information about this artwork with students. Use the accompanying discussion questions to prompt students about the role this image may have had in the Catholic faith.
• This triptych (an artwork made in three sections) was made by Bernardo Daddi, an Italian artist working in Florence during the early Renaissance (about 1300–1650 A.D.). Share biographical information about Bernardo Daddi, found on this Web site, with the students. Daddi's figures have bulk and physicality, which was a new invention of the early Renaissance. Daddi's use of perspective to create a sense of receding space was also a new invention of the Renaissance. Before this time, the figures in religious artworks were created with flat, abstract patterns and the space they occupied had no depth. There are some flat elements in this image—it mixes older styles with the new three-dimensional style.
How do you think creating realistic-looking figures within a three-dimensional space would affect the religious impact of an image like this?

• The image shows the Virgin Mary (often called the Madonna) in the center. She is flanked by Saint Thomas Aquinas holding a book of his writings and Saint Paul holding a sword, the symbol of his martyrdom (he was killed because of his religious beliefs). Some art historians have suggested that Mary reaches out from the picture plane toward the viewer, perhaps as an intercessor between the viewer and God. Other art historians have argued that she is gesturing to an altar or tomb that would have been below this altarpiece in the chapel for which it was created. Others suggest that the Virgin is gesturing towards the unborn Christ child in her womb.
What do you think the Madonna's gesture means? How might different viewers interpret this artwork differently, based on what they think her gesture means? How does the artist's use of space emphasize this gesture? The Virgin Mary is often painted along with her son, Jesus Christ. Why do you think the artist painted her without Christ?

4. Before discussing the religious significance of this image, activate students' previous knowledge about the early Renaissance in Florence. Additional resources for a more in-depth study about the early Renaissance are listed in the Materials section, above.

Explain to students that, during the early Renaissance, the Catholic Church lost some of its power as a new middle class of tradesmen, artisans, and bankers gained great economic power. These private citizens began to commission art, including religious artworks. The recently invented printing press also gave many people access to books, like the bible, written in vernacular languages. Previously, books were very expensive, and only available in Latin, which meant that only the wealthy and highly educated had access to books. All of this meant that, more and more, private citizens were able to get direct access to God, rather than going through the Church.

5. This triptych is four feet wide. It would have been too small to serve as an altarpiece in a church, yet too large to have been carried by a single person. Therefore, it was most likely made for a small, private chapel within a church, and was probably commissioned by a private family.

Use the following questions to have students think about the connection between new attitudes towards religion and artists' new use of space during the early Renaissance.
• How do you think the new access to books like the bible may have affected the role of religion in people's lives during the early Renaissance? (direct access to the words of God, without priests as intermediaries)
• Look again at the Madonna's gesture. Does knowing that this was painted for a private chapel—probably for a private family—change your interpretation of the gesture?
• In a private chapel, this image would have been a focus of spiritual contemplation, or prayer. How do you think the use of perspective and modeling affect the spiritual impact of the image for the individual who prayed in front of it? (The new three-dimensionality makes the figures seem more realistic, as if they are stepping into our space. This realism creates a more personal effect.)
• How do you think the introduction of perspective and three-dimensional space within religious images may have transformed the way people practiced their religion?

6. Introduce the research assignment to students. They are to research and write a two- to three-page paper about a religious work of art by an Italian, early Renaissance artist. Students should use at least two different sources (Internet, periodicals, books, encyclopedias, etc.) for their papers. Students should include one image of the artist's work, and analyze how the artist used space in the image to create a spiritual or religious message. Below is a list of potential artists students can research.
• Fra Angelico
• Giotto di Bondone
• Sandro Botticelli
• Filippo Brunelleschi
• Cennino Cennini
• Donatello
• Gentile da Fabriano
• Lorenzo Ghiberti
• Domenico Ghirlandaio
• Masaccio

Madonna & Saints / Daddi
Madonna, Saint Thomas Aquinas, and Saint Paul, Bernardo Daddi, about 1330


Students will be assessed on their participation in class discussions and activities. Students will also be assessed on their completion of the research assignment on Renaissance artists according to individual teacher specifications.

Standards Addressed

Common Core Standards for English Language Arts

Grades 6–8

Key Ideas and Details
1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Craft and Structure
4. Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas
7. Integrate and evaluate content presented in diverse media and formats, including visually and quantitatively, as well as in words.
8. Delineate and evaluate the argument and specific claims in a text, including the validity of the reasoning as well as the relevance and sufficiency of the evidence.
9. Analyze how two or more texts address similar themes or topics in order to build knowledge or to compare the approaches the authors take.

Text Types and Purposes
2. Write informative/explanatory texts to examine and convey complex ideas and information clearly and accurately through the effective selection, organization, and analysis of content.

Production and Distribution of Writing
4. Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.
5. Develop and strengthen writing as needed by planning, revising, editing, rewriting, or trying a new approach.

Research to Build and Present Knowledge
7. Conduct short as well as more sustained research projects based on focused questions, demonstrating understanding of the subject under investigation.
8. Gather relevant information from multiple print and digital sources, assess the credibility and accuracy of each source, and integrate the information while avoiding plagiarism.
9. Draw evidence from literary or informational texts to support analysis, reflection, and research.

Range of Writing
10. Write routinely over extended time frames (time for research, reflection, and revision) and shorter time frames (a single sitting or a day or two) for a range of tasks, purposes, and audiences.

Comprehension and Collaboration
1. Prepare for and participate effectively in a range of conversations and collaborations with diverse partners, building on others' ideas and expressing their own clearly and persuasively.
2. Integrate and evaluate information presented in diverse media and formats, including visually, quantitatively, and orally.

Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 7

Artistic Perception
1.1 Describe the environment and selected works of art, using the elements of art and the principles of design.
1.2 Identify and describe scale (proportion) as applied to two-dimensional and three-dimensional works of art.
1.3 Identify and describe the ways in which artists convey the illusion of space (e.g., placement, overlapping, relative size, atmospheric perspective, and linear perspective).

Historical and Cultural Context
3.1 Research and describe how art reflects cultural values in various traditions throughout the world.

History—Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 7

World History and Geography: Medieval and Early Modern Times
7.6.8. Understand the importance of the Catholic Church as a political, intellectual, and aesthetic institution (e.g., founding of universities, political and spiritual roles of the clergy, creation of monastic and mendicant religious orders, preservation of the Latin language and religious texts, St. Thomas Aquinas's synthesis of classical philosophy with Christian theology, and the concept of "natural law").

7.8 Students analyze the origins, accomplishments, and geographic diffusion of the Renaissance.
7.8.2 Explain the importance of Florence in the early stages of the Renaissance and the growth of independent trading cities (e.g., Venice), with emphasis on the cities' importance in the spread of Renaissance ideas.
7.8.5 Detail advances made in literature, the arts, science, mathematics, cartography, engineering, and the understanding of human anatomy and astronomy (e.g., by Dante Alighieri, Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo di Buonarroti Simoni, Johann Gutenberg, William Shakespeare).