Visualizing Devotion Lesson Plan Looking at Ritual and Ceremony

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J. Paul Getty Museum
Education Department

Visualizing Devotion Lesson Plan
Looking at Ritual and Ceremony

Grades: Middle School (6–8)

Subjects: Visual Arts, History—Social Science

Time Required: 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 Web site, ArtsEdNet.

Featured Getty Artworks:

The Eclipse Dance by Edward S. Curtis
Lesson Overview:

Students explore 19th-century photographer Edward Curtis's documentation of a ritual performed by Native Americans. They then consider how ceremony and ritual practice are depicted and understood by those outside of a religious culture. Students use photography to document their own religious or spiritual rituals, and then examine one another's images and interpret their peers' spiritual beliefs based on the photographs.

Learning Objectives:

Students will be able to:

  • discuss the dual role of photography as both "art" and "document."

  • discuss Edward Curtis's role in documenting the rituals, ceremonies, and traditions of Native American tribes throughout North America in the 19th century.

  • discuss issues involved in representing other cultures.

  • define the word ritual in its religious senses, and give examples from their personal experiences.

  • document spiritual rituals in their own lives using photography and interpret photographs of their peers' rituals.


  • Reproduction of The Eclipse Dance by Edward Curtis

  • Student Handout: Elements of Art and Principles of Design

  • Student Handout: Edward Curtis and Native American History

  • Disposable black-and-white or color 35mm cameras

  • Paper and pencils

  • Additional information about Edward Curtis and his volumes of The North American Indian (optional):

    • Biography of Edward Curtis on this Web site (

    • The Library of Congress's Web presentation “Edward S. Curtis’s The North American Indian” (

    • Wikipedia's page on Edward Curtis ( includes links to more resources.

Lesson Steps:

  1. Display an image of the photograph The Eclipse Dance by Edward Curtis and have students visually analyze it in small groups using the Elements of Art and Principles of Design Student Handout. Do not reveal the title. Tell students that some elements and principles will be stronger in the composition than others. Discuss students’ findings as a class using the following questions:

  • What elements of art can you see most clearly in this photograph? Point out where you see the elements in the photograph. (e.g. Shape—describes dancing figures. Line—horizontal line separating foreground from the background, diagonal lines the dancers are waving in the air. Value—dark black foreground and figures, lighter grey-pink of sky. Space—shallow in foreground, dancers in middle background gives sense of depth. Texture—surface seems smooth, foreground looks grassy, smoky atmosphere.)

  • Artists use the elements of art in different ways to achieve balance, emphasis, movement, pattern, repetition, proportion, rhythm, variety, and unity, which are known as the principles of design. What principles of design do you see in this photograph? (e.g. Balance—figures distributed evenly in center, dark lower half against light upper half. Repetition—figures, angled sticks in dancers' hands. Movement—curve and direction the figures are facing, leading lines of the objects they are holding.)

  • In this composition, do you think the artist attempted to control the elements and principles to achieve an effect? How might he or she have done this? What is the effect he or she created? How would you characterize the atmosphere or mood created in this photograph? How did the artist use the elements of art to create this mood?

  1. Have students think about the dual nature of photography as both art and document by telling them about the history of photography: Photography is often thought of as an accurate document of reality because it records objects using light, instead of the artist's hand. But a photographer can manipulate the composition, lighting, and color to deliberately create certain effects. When this photograph was taken, almost 100 years ago, photography was primarily considered a tool for documentation. Very few artists had begun to use photography as an artistic medium.

Have students consider whether Curtis's photograph is an art or a document, or both, with the following questions:

  • Do you think this photograph is a document, or a work of art? Is it both? Point out visual clues to support your answer.

  • Think back to your answers to the kind of mood created by the artist's use of the elements of art in the photograph. Do you think it is an artistic mood? Or a documentary mood?

  • The title of this image is The Eclipse Dance. Does this title make you think that Edward Curtis intended this photograph to be an artwork, or a document?

  • What reasons might the artist have had for taking this photograph? What do you think the purpose of this photograph was? For art, documentation, or both?

  • What do you think is the subject of this photograph? What do you see that makes you say that?

  1. Next, activate students' knowledge about the history of Native Americans. Incorporate the historical information about Curtis and this photograph provided on the worksheet Edward Curtis and Native American History to support students' knowledge base about this period in Native American history. See Web Resources listed in Materials for additional information about Curtis.

Reinforce students' learning with the following questions:

  • What are some of the reasons Curtis may have had for wanting to document the lives of Native Americans?

  • How does knowing that Curtis did not always represent Native Americans accurately and sometimes staged his photographs of them change your opinion of his work? Do you think this makes his work less powerful? Less accurate or truthful? Why or why not?

  • Think again about whether you believe the photograph of the eclipse dance is a pure document and/or a work of art. In what ways is it a document of this period in history?

  • Why do you think Curtis chose to document what appears to be a religious or spiritual ritual in this image? What does this image tell us about the Kwakiutl spiritual beliefs? What does it tell you about Curtis's attitudes about the spiritual beliefs of Native Americans?

  • Do you think it's ever possible for a person to understand the spiritual beliefs of another culture?

  • Do you think that trying to understand someone else's spiritual beliefs is an important way to begin understanding their culture? Why or why not?

  1. Curtis's image depicts a Native American ritual or ceremony. What does the word ritual mean to you? How would you define a ritual? Is this a religious word? Does it have other meanings?

  1. Share with students the definition of the word ritual (n).

  • RITUAL: 1. The prescribed order of a religious ceremony; 2. The prescribed form of conducting a formal, secular ceremony; 3. A book of rites or ceremonial forms; 4. A ceremonial act or series of such acts; 5. A detailed method of procedure faithfully or regularly followed (i.e. My household chores have become my morning ritual.)

Compare students’ definitions to the dictionary definition and point out that a ritual is specifically the order of actions or words that are part of a ceremony.

  • Did you realize that the word ritual has a religious meaning?

  • How does one learn about how to participate in religious rituals? Are you taught? Or do you just learn by observation? How do you think Edward Curtis learned about the rituals of Native Americans?

  • What is the purpose of a ritual? How do rituals support spiritual or religious beliefs?

  • Curtis documented these rituals because he believed they were "vanishing." Do you think spiritual or religious rituals can vanish? Or do they simply change? Can you think of any rituals in your family that have changed or "vanished" over time?

  1. Continuing this train of thought, ask students to think of specific spiritual rituals from their own lives. Remind them that rituals are the steps taken within religious ceremonies. (Examples from organized religions: Receiving communion in the Catholic Church. Making the sign of the cross. Fasting during Ramadan. Saying "namaste" after Buddhist meditation. Walking counterclockwise around a Hindu shrine. Blowing a conch shell at a Tibetan shrine.)

Point out to students that even if they are not part of an organized religion, they may perform rituals that are connected to spiritual beliefs. Have them also think of secular (non-religious) rituals in their lives. As a class, compare some of the religious rituals mentioned by students to some of the secular rituals that are mentioned. Challenge students to think about disappearing rituals and traditions in their lives. Suggest that they brainstorm with family members or classmates.

  1. Pass out disposable cameras and tell students that their assignment is to document religious rituals in their own lives. Unlike Curtis, they will document a ritual of their own culture in order to share with their peers something about the religious beliefs of their culture. If desired, they can stage or compose their ritual photographs using props, costumes, etc. just as Curtis did. Students can photograph secular rituals if they are not comfoprtable documenting religious ones.

Students should address the following questions with their images (You may choose to have students address these questions in writing as part of this assignment):

a. Is your photograph a document, or art, or both?

b. How will you use the elements of art and the principles of design when composing your picture? How will you use them to convey the mood of the ritual?

c. Is the ritual you photographed a vanishing ritual, or a new ritual?

d. What part of the ritual did you photograph? Why?

  1. When students are done shooting their photographs, have the images developed. Students should choose their best image to present to the class. Have students pair up and trade photographs. Each student should analyze his or her peer's photograph by answering the following questions in writing.

a. Is the photograph a document, or art, or both?

b. How did the artist use the elements of art and the principles of design to convey the mood of the ritual? How did they use elements and principles to give the photograph a sense of being a document, or art?

c. What ritual do you think is depicted? Can you tell if it is a vanishing ritual or a new ritual?

d. What have you learned about the religious or spiritual beliefs of the photographer's culture by looking at this photograph?

  1. Once finished, student pairs should present their interpretations of each other's photographs to the class. Have them discuss whether their intentions for their photographs were successful, and whether they can learn about other cultures by looking at these photographs.


Students will be assessed primarily on their participation in class discussions and activities. Students should be able to explain how they incorporated the elements or art and principles of design into their photographic compositions.

Standards Addressed:
Visual Arts Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 8

Artistic Perception

1.1 Use artistic terms when describing the intent and content of works of art.

1.2 Analyze and justify how their artistic choices contribute to the expressive quality of their own works of art.

Creative Expression

2.3 Create an original work of art, using film, photography, computer graphics, or video.

Historical and Cultural Context

3.1 Examine and describe or report on the role of a work of art created to make a social comment or protest social conditions.

History—Social Science Content Standards for California Public Schools

Grade 8

United States History and Geography: Growth and Conflict

8.8 Students analyze the divergent paths of the American people in the West from 1800 to the mid-1800s and the challenges they faced.

8.8.2 Describe the purpose, challenges, and economic incentives associated with westward

expansion, including the concept of Manifest Destiny (e.g., the Lewis and Clark expedition, accounts of the removal of Indians, the Cherokees' "Trail of Tears," settlement of the Great Plains) and the territorial acquisitions that spanned numerous decades.
8.12.2 Identify the reasons for the development of federal Indian policy and the wars with American Indians and their relationship to agricultural development and industrialization.

© 2006 J. Paul Getty Trust

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