Lesson Plans

Seeing Ourselves in Art and Art History

Art shows us the past, not only the way previous generations looked and dressed, but how they lived: their class systems, religious practices, politics, gender roles and war craft.

NEXUS treats art as a Common Core subject (similar to DBAE) and includes it as a key interdisciplinary component of history and literature education. In NEXUS books, art also provides a lens through which we can gain a clearer understanding of the contemporary world.

Incorporating art in history and literature is an ideal way to engage visual learners.

With NEXUS students learn to read metaphorical art as fluently as they interpret literature. Many paintings and sculptures include narrative elements and visual figurative language: visual metaphor, contrast, symbols, and irony. Learning to read art helps students improve their language arts skills by reinforcing and expanding their understanding of figurative language. At the same time it enhances visual literacy, enabling students to interpret and analyze the images with which they are constantly surrounded in the 21st century. Until now there has been very little stress on visual literacy in American education. NEXUS reverses this paradigm.

Ancient Greece Art Lessons, Projects and Cross-Curricular Connections

Greek Art, Visual Storytelling

Some Greek vases narrate myths of gods and heroes; others depict episodes from stories like the Odyssey; and some depict scenes of daily life.  “By exploring Greek art we can learn to see through ancient eyes and almost step across the ages to attend 5th-century B.C. Olympic Games and festivals, sit in on an Athenian play, or tour an ancient pottery factory. Scenes like these are depicted on Greek vases and sculptural works. In his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn, the 19th-century poet John Keats invites us to walk with him into the life depicted on a Greek vase, resurrecting the past as if it were a sleeping world waiting for someone to appreciate it to awaken.” [ For more see “Greek Art, Visual Storytelling,” Antigone and the Greek World, NEXUS]

Vase Painting that Illustrates Drama
“The Medea Krater depicts a scene from Euripides’ tragedy Medea. The vase was painted about 30 years after the first performance of the play in Athens. Let’s begin by describing what we see”.
“Medea has just murdered her children to get revenge on her husband, Jason, who dumped her for another woman. She rides away in triumph on a dragon-drawn chariot surrounded by a sunburst (the chariot is a gift from her grandfather Helios, the god of the sun). Jason watches his wife from the ground, helplessly holding an empty sheath.”
“Below her the dead boys, dressed like their father and sprawled across a sacrificial stone, are mourned by their teacher and nurse, weeping the tears their mother should weep. The old man on the opposite side of the vase shields his eyes from the horrible sight. The nurse cuts strands of her hair for the dead boys, an ancient Greek custom.”
“To the left of the murder scene, two plants stand starkly against the black background. They may represent the life the young boys still had to live. Between the plant stalks, a vessel, possibly an urn, lies on its side, and a lamb (a reminder of the Golden Fleece) leaps in the air. What might these represent? Let’s look for contrasts and connections in this painting, as we’ve done in past volumes of NEXUS…” [For more see “Greek Art, Visual Storytelling,” Antigone and the Greek World, NEXUS]
Black Figure vs. Red Figure Techniques
“During the 6th and 5th centuries the Greeks developed two styles of vase painting: the black-figure and later the red-figure style. Red-figure allowed for great realism, including shading….” [For more see “Greek Art, Visual Storytelling,” Antigone and the Greek World, NEXUS]
Greek Vase Shapes
“Vases weren’t just for decoration; they had a variety of purposes, too. Each usage dictated the vase’s shape. For example, there are three kinds of wine vessels. Huge kraters were used for mixing wine with water. (Greeks rarely drank wine straight; they usually diluted it. Often the guest of honor at a party determined the ratio of water to wine.)…” [For more see “Greek Art, Visual Storytelling,” Antigone and the Greek World, NEXUS]

Sculpture and Symmetry

"The Greeks loved balance and symmetry. We see it in their pottery, their painting, and their sculpture….About six copies of Polykleitos’ statues exist.  Let’s look at a copy of his Doryphorous….Notice how the tension between contracted and relaxed muscles brings the statue to life even more than the Kritian statue.  The right arm is straight like the right leg, yet it’s relaxed while the leg is tense. His left arm, which held the spear, is bent like the left leg, but the arm is poised for action and the leg is relaxed. This balance of similarity and difference, and of opposite but equal forces, helps give the figure its harmony. The balance is so subtle that it is more felt than seen." [For more see “Sculpture and Symmetry,” Antigone and the Greek World, NEXUS]

Roman Art Lessons

Roman Paintings, Sculptures and Relief - Reality or Mirage

"Roman artists were masters of deception, magicians who could conjure up images so realistic that viewers thought they were looking at the real thing. Roman writers tell about paintings of buildings with tiled roofs that looked so real that crows tried to land on them…" [For more see “Roman Art, Reality or Mirage,” Julius Caesar and Ancient Rome, from Republic to Empire, NEXUS]

"Before the 2nd century AD, the Romans usually cremated their dead and placed the ashes in elaborate marble urns or boxes. Let’s look at a typical example, a Cinerary Urn shaped like a house or temple with a slanting roof as its lid (see figure on previous page). It’s about the size of a boom box and is covered with carved decoration. It probably once had a painted inscription naming the deceased in the blank rectangular plaque in the center. Can you find what might be an image of the dead man, flanked by portraits of his wife and son? These portraits are realistic (not symbolic); all the other carved decorations are symbolic as well as realistic. For instance, the garland of fruit and the two birds below the portraits symbolize…" [For more see “Roman Art, Reality or Mirage,” Julius Caesar and Ancient Rome, from Republic to Empire, NEXUS]

Medieval Art and Period Art Lessons

Gothic Architecture

St Denis
We explore the blend of religion and politics behind the vision of Abbot Suger that made Gothic architecture a reality in the middle 12th century.
“Like most good ideas Suger’s was a combination of old ideas animated by a new vision. Elements of Gothic architecture had appeared in various Romanesque churches in the first half of the twelfth century: pointed arches and ribbed groin vaults here, flying buttresses there. Suger consolidated these diverse elements into a harmonious whole…Suger’s vision was simple. He wanted bigger, brighter churches. In Ordinator, he explains that the old church was too small to accommodate the ‘unruly crowds of visiting pilgrims’ who poured into it on holy days. You could see how people grievously trod down one another. How…eager little women struggled to advance…” [For more see “Gothic Architecture,” The Lion in Winter and the Middle Ages, NEXUS]
Chartres Cathedral

Illuminated Manuscript

Books of Light
“In Dark-Age Ireland illuminated manuscripts were often viewed as magical – perhaps partly because Irish missionaries had to compete with the magic of the Celtic Druids and prove that their religion (or magic) was superior. Irish illuminated manuscripts, like the Book of Kells, were the missionaries’ talismans. There are reports of snake-bite victims being cured by drinking water mixed with the scrapings from the pages of Irish manuscripts. And according to the scholar Christopher de Hamel, ‘the [8th-century Irish] Book of Durrow was still being immersed in water to provide a cure for sick cattle’ in the 17th century! Irish manuscripts were even carried into battle to help defeat pagan enemies. Apparently, the books’ beauty and aura of power scared some of them into surrendering and converting.”
“Also, the illuminated crosses and pictures of the Evangelists, which appear at the beginning of the gospels, were believed to ward off evil and protect books. And books needed protection. The gold in illuminated manuscripts was a great temptation to book bandits. Therefore warnings and curses were sometimes written in the margins to frighten away would-be thieves. Many people claimed the curses worked. When a Durham monk unlawfully tampered with the Stonyhurst Gospel in 1104, horrendous swellings erupted all over his body. He supposedly was the victim of a book curse.” [For more see “Books of Light, Illuminated Manuscripts,” Macbeth and the Dark Ages, NEXUS]
Theme and Variations
Limited Palette and Color Patterns
Making a Manuscript, the Monk’s Art
Stephen Fliegel, Curator of Early Western Art at the Cleveland Museum of Art, takes us through the steps of manuscript illumination. The chapter is illustrated by examples of illuminated manuscripts created by contemporary artist Steven Otlowski in the medieval style.

Bayeux Tapestry – Visual Narrative of the Battle of Hastings

Reading the Bayeux Tapestry as a reenactment of the famous battle that changed England forever with follow-up art lessons and art history lessons

“A major feature of the Tapestry’s artistic language is its way of telling a story. Unlike most medieval narrative artists who place succeeding episodes in a series of framed scenes, as in the leaf from the Winchester Bible (p.25), which illustrates events from the life of King David, the Tapestry master returns to a method of continuous narration that was popular in such Roman monuments as Trajan’s Column. One episode leads inevitably to the next as the viewer walks along the 230 foot banner-like strip. No vertical lines foreign to the story separate scenes Instead, trees or buildings or pointing figures serve as visual punctuation marks, some acting as periods or semicolons, suggesting that one should stop and ‘take a breath,’ while others indicate that one should pause briefly, as when we encounter a comma in a text. Finally, some figures are like conjunctions (and, but, because) that connect scenes.” [For more see “Unraveling the Bayeux Tapestry,” Macbeth and the Dark Ages, NEXUS]
Tapestry Threads
“Strange but true: the most famous ‘tapestry’ in the world is actually an embroidery. In a tapestry, for example, the celebrated Unicorn Tapestries in Paris and New York, imagery is woven on a loom. In embroidery, it is sewn with needles onto a background. Whereas a woven work is usually stronger and more durable, as well as thicker – hence its usefulness on cold, drafty castle walls, an embroidery is cheaper and faster to produce. In the Bayeux work, two embroidery techniques are used, stem or outline stitch and laid and couched work…” [ For more see “Tapestry Threads,” Macbeth and the Dark Ages, NEXUS]

Renaissance Art and Art Integration Lesson Plans

Botticelli – the Poet Painter

During the Renaissance, Christianity and a diluted form of paganism existed side by side, usually in harmony….The painter Sandro Botticelli sometimes used the same model for his Madonnas and his Venuses. Renaissance philosophers like Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola attempted to reconcile Platonic and Neoplatonic philosophy with Christian doctrine. Plato, the pagan, ancient Greek philosopher, was so popular that one of the Medici founded a Platonic Academy in Florence – kind of a Dead Poets Society for grownups.  At meetings, members gathered around a lighted bust of Plato and debated philosophy, religion, and art and read poetry in Latin and Greek. One of the members of this rarified group was Botticelli. [For more see “The Rebirth of Venus, Mythology in Art and Literature,” Romeo and Juliet and the Renaissance, NEXUS]

Birth of Venus – Reading a Visual Poem with Follow-up Art Lessons
We help students analyze the visual metaphors, contrasts and symbols in Botticelli’s most famous painting.
“Botticelli’s Primavera (spring) is a mythological painting about the garden of Venus – a garden in which spring and love last forever. Primavera is an interdisciplinary artwork, a marriage of painting and poetry. In it the artist combines ancient Venus myths from several sources, including poems by Roman poets Ovid, Lucretius and Horace. By selecting information from different versions of the myth, he…” [ For more see “The Rebirth of Venus, Mythology in Art and Literature,” Romeo and Juliet and the Renaissance, NEXUS

Art Lessons à la Leonardo – Visual Metaphor and One-Point Perspective

Interpreting Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece.

In 1493, "one year after Columbus sailed to the New World, Leonardo da Vinci began work on The Last Supper in the dining hall of a Milanese monastery.  It was painted on a wall overlooking the eating tables so the monks of Santa Maria delle Grazie could contemplate it while they ate. But until Leonardo finished the gigantic painting, the monks had to eat in the kitchen or outside. ‘It is said that the prior of that place kept pressing Leonardo…to finish the work,’ wrote Giorgio Vasari in his Lives of the Artists, ‘for it seemed strange to him to see Leonardo sometimes stand half a day at a time, lost in meditation….He would have liked him to go on like the laborers hoeing in his garden, without ever stopping his brush.’ Several years later – the painting still unfinished – the Prior filed a complaint…" [For more see “The Explorers of Picture Space, Age of Rediscovery,” Romeo and Juliet and the Renaissance,NEXUS]

American Art – Reading Narrative Art and Visual Metaphor

Harlem Renaissance- Interpreting Murals that Document Black History

Song of the Towers and Building More Stately Mansions, murals by Aaron Douglas, are poetic windows into African American history that students explore in this volume of NEXUS. We help them identify visual metaphors, symbols, contrast, and irony in the murals.

In Song of the Towers a jazzman playing a saxophone stands on a giant gear or cog. At the center of the painting is a miniaturized Statue of Liberty with circles of light emanating from it. New York City buildings thrust into the sky, creating a geometric, stylized pattern.  A series of circles and waves cuts across these buildings. Smoke stacks puff gray plumes into the air, and an apartment building with inviting windows nestles in the hub of the giant gear…”

"On the lower right, a man races up the gear, carrying a suitcase. He’s running from something. Green flames lick at his heels, and a gnarly green hand grabs at him from behind. Notice the man’s clothes are ragged, his pants torn at the bottom like a farm hand’s work trousers.  Also, he’s barefoot. In contrast, the man playing the saxophone is well-dressed; he is bold and dignified as his music appears to be…" [ For more see “Renaissance Visions, the Art of Aaron Douglas,” The Harlem Renaissance, NEXUS]

Lessons for Analyzing Art of the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl

Oklahoma Dust Storm - photograph by Arthur Rothstein - shows a half buried house in the Dust Bowl.

White Angel Bread Line by Dorothea Lange depicts unemployed men waiting in a San Francisco bread line during the Great Depression.

Reading New Deal Art and Art Project Ideas
Interpreting metaphorical and symbolic WPA murals.
“Umberto Romano’s History of Springfield, painted in the former Springfield, Massachusetts Post Office, is inhabited by early Massachusetts settlers on our right and 19th-century politicians on the left. Between them is a man tied to a cross who appears to be part of the present and the past. He seems to thrust out of the mural into our time; but the cross anchors him in the past – to Christian history and to Christ. At his feet lie two war victims, one turned toward the viewer, the other wearing a gas mask. An American flag is draped over their chests…” [For more see “New Deal Art, for the people, by the people,” The Grapes of Wrath and the American Dream, Nexus]
The History of Art in the 1930s
Francis V. O’Connor examines the Federal Art Project under the WPA and the Treasury Department’s Section of Painting and Sculpture.
“The Section commissioned through competition the best art it could acquire for federal buildings in Washington, and Post Offices and Court Houses across the country. Regionalist in orientation, it established "The American Scene" as its over-riding theme and local history its favored subject. You might find examples in your local Post Office….The Section's taste for Regionalist themes in its 1,100 odd murals, mostly in Post Offices, resulted in competent but tedious walls depicting rural life and local history. Of greater interest are those it commissioned for federal buildings in Washington, D.C. Among these, Ben Shahn’s panels for the new Social Security Building stand out. Completed in 1942, they were intended to symbolize the goals of the New Deal's major legislative victory, the establishment of the Social Security system…” [For more see “The History of Art in the New Deal Era,” The Grapes of Wrath and the American Dream Supplement, NEXUS]
“The WPA/FAP, in contrast to the Section, became a vast relief project for impoverished artists in all art forms. While this preserved the skills and kept alive greats such as the future Abstract Expressionist Jackson Pollock and African-American painter Jacob Lawrence, it produced…” [ For more see “The History of Art in the New Deal Era,” The Grapes of Wrath and the American Dream Supplement, NEXUS]

Online Interdisciplinary Art Gallery (Coming Soon) – Student Art Work and Interdisciplinary Art Project Ideas