Gods, Heroes and Monsters: Mythology in European Art Lesson Plan

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J. Paul Getty Museum
Education Department

Gods, Heroes and Monsters: Mythology in European Art Lesson Plan

Contemporizing Myths

Grades: Middle School (6–8)

Subjects: Visual Arts, English—Language Arts
Time Required: 3–5-part lesson

3 class periods

Author: J. Paul Getty Museum Education Staff
Featured Getty Artwork

The Abduction of Europa, Rembrandt Harmensz. Van Rijn, 1632

Lesson Overview

Students will examine Rembrandt’s painting The Abduction of Europa and discuss how the artist has taken an ancient Greek myth and contemporized it for a 17th-century Dutch audience. They will then read origin myths and choose a scene to illustrate in a contemporary setting.

Learning Objectives

Students will be able to:

- explain how Rembrandt took the ancient myth of Europa and the bull and set it in a contemporary context.

- discuss the purpose of origin myths.

- illustrate a scene from a myth within a contemporary setting.

- Image of The Abduction of Europa, by Rembrandt Harmensz. van Rijn

- Handout: The Abduction of Europa

- Pencils and sketch paper

- 9-by-12-inch watercolor paper

- Watercolor pencils and watercolors

- Book or collection of mythological stories

Lesson Steps

1. Begin examination of Rembrandt’s Abduction of Europa with the following questions.

- What is happening in this scene?

- How does the artist draw our attention to the main characters in this story?

- From the expressions on the faces of the characters, what do you think might be taking place?

- Does it look like the woman riding the bull is leaving her friends behind willingly?

- Read the excerpt from Ovid’s tale about the abduction of Europa. How does Ovid’s version from A.D. 1 compare to Rembrandt’s version painted in 1632?

- Ovid’s story was set in ancient Greece. But the figures are dressed in the contemporary costume of Rembrandt’s day. The city in the background is supposed to represent Europa’s native city of Tyre, but it does not look like a city out of ancient Greece. It is 17th-century Amsterdam. Why do you think Rembrandt decided to update his mythological scene? (Rembrandt is making this mythological scene relevant to his contemporary audience. He may have been referencing the city of Amsterdam for a specific patron.)

2. The princess Europa is often associated with the name of the continent of Europe. She was originally a Phoenician princess from Tyre who was swept away by a bull from Asia Minor to the island of Crete. In some mythological stories it is from Europa that the continent of Europe derives its name. Discuss the idea of origin stories by examining the following myths. Not all of these are about continents; some are about cycles of nature, others are moralizing tales:

- The story of Venus and Adonis, and the creation of the anemone flower as a symbol of their love.

- The story of Pluto and Proserpine and her mother Ceres, and how the seasons came to be.

- The story of Arachne and how she was turned into a spider.

- The story of Narcissus and the origin of the flower of the same name.
What do these stories mean to us today? Do these stories still communicate a message that is meaningful to us? We now know the scientific explanation for many of the phenomena that are explained in ancient Greek myths. Why do we still read them? (They are the basis of Western literature, and the lessons they teach can still be relevant today. Some of them, such as the tales of Narcissus and Arachne, teach us not to be vain or boastful. The story of Venus and Adonis speaks to lost love and the inevitability of fate.)
3. Just as Rembrandt chose to depict what he considered an important moment in the story, students will choose a moment from a story to illustrate, but think about how they can place their story in a modern context.
4. Have each student choose from a variety of origin myths. More than one student can chose the same myth since they may choose very different moments from the story to illustrate. Have the students think about the following questions before beginning. They may want to sketch out ideas before starting on their watercolor.

- What will be the setting for the story you choose?

- Which characters will have to be in the story?

- What can you update from the story to make it more relevant today?

5. After they have read over their myths and thought about the questions above, have students start their final drawing. Have the students use a sheet of medium-heavy watercolor paper, watercolor pencils, and watercolors to create their scenes from an ancient myth in a modern context.
6. Once students are finished with their illustrations, bring them together and as a group discuss their works. Group illustrations from the same myths together and see how they tell the story in a visual way. How did each student approach the same story in a different way? Look at works from the Getty Museum, which illustrate some of the same stories. What moments did these artists choose to illustrate in their works? How did they use different media (such as painting, sculpture, tapestries, etc.) to convey an aspect of the story?


Have the students create a self-assessment by addressing the following:

- Discuss the reasons you chose this particular moment in the story to illustrate.

- Explain how you have communicated this myth in a modern context.

- What would you change about your drawing, now that you have finished? Are there any improvements or changes you would make to better communicate the story?

- Students will be graded on their completion of the assignment and self-assessment and their participation in class discussion.


Read origin myths from other cultures and discuss how they are similar to and different from the ancient Greek stories. What commonalities across myths do you find? What do the myths from other cultures say about the places in which they were created? What are these stories trying to communicate? Is their function the same as in Greek mythology? Have a larger discussion about myths and why humans have needed them to explain the world around them. Do we still have myths that we believe in today? What are some modern myths?

Standards Addressed
Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools
Grade 6

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
1.1 Identify and describe all the elements of art found in selected works of art (color, shape/form, line, texture, space, and value).
1.2 Discuss works of art as to theme, genre, style, idea, and differences in media.
1.3 Describe how artists can show the same theme by using different media and styles.
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.
Diversity of the Visual Arts
3.3 Compare, in oral or written form, representative images or designs from at least two selected cultures.
5.0 Connections, Relationships, Applications
Connecting and Applying What Is Learned in the Visual Arts to Other Art Forms and Subject Areas and to Careers
Connections and Applications
5.3 Create artwork containing visual metaphors that express the traditions and myths of selected cultures.
Language Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools
Grade 6

3.0 Literary Response and Analysis

Narrative Analysis of Grade-Level-Appropriate Text
3.2 Analyze the effect of the qualities of the character (e.g., courage or cowardice, ambition or laziness) on the plot and the resolution of the conflict.
History—Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 6

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.

© 2007 J. Paul Getty Trust

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