Students will read the Greek myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha and analyze its relationship to Castiglione’s painting. After researching other artworks depicting flood stories from around the world, they will write a story of their own using only the visual clues in the artwork.
Intended Age GroupSecondary (grades 6-12)
Length of LessonTwo 45 minute lessons
Standards AreaLanguage Arts
Students will be able to:
- compare and contrast a painting with a Greek myth;
- identify compositional and technical elements in a painting;
- read and write on a symbolic level; and
- write and illustrate an original myth/flood story.
- Show students Castiglione’s Deucalion and Pyrrha. Ask them to investigate what is going on in the painting. Let them make wild guesses and talk generally about what they see. Jot down notes on the board as you discuss the following questions:
- Who are the main characters in this painting? What are they looking at? What are they doing?
- What is your eye drawn to first?
- What might be happening in the top half of the painting? What might be happening in the bottom half?
- Can you tell where the painting is taking place?
- What is the weather like?
- What emotions do you see?
- Once you’ve brainstormed a list of visual clues, tell students that this painting is based on the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha, found in the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. Ovid was a Roman poet who, in writing Metamorphoses, created one of the most important records of classical mythology in history.
- Read an appropriate version of the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha as a class. Ask students to point out which parts of the story they identified correctly in the initial brainstorm, which parts of the story are illustrated in Castiglione’s painting, and which parts of the story Castiglione left out of his painting.
- Now that they know the myth of Deucalion and Pyrrha, what clues in the painting reveal the storyline? How did Castiglione tell a whole story through one painting? Explain to the students that the Renaissance (when this painting was created) saw a rebirth in Greek and Roman art and literature. Most educated people would have known the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha and been able to recognize the story in the painting easily.
- Discuss how Castiglione arranged the painting to emphasize certain parts of the story. Focus on:
- Color—Follow different colors across the painting and look at how they are distributed. Where is the brightest color? Why might Castiglione want us to look there?
- Division—How are the upper and lower halves of the painting different? Why might the painting be divided like this?
- Weather—What is the weather doing in this painting? How does the weather relate to the painting?
- Begin the day by displaying Deucalion and Pyrrha for the students to see. As a class, discuss the prevalence of flood stories in cultures, religions, tribes, and regions from around the world. You may want to research flood stories from around the world to share with your students.
- Have students research other artworks that involve flood imagery in art history books and museum websites. If computers with Internet access are available, students could begin by going to Google Images and doing a search of “flood stories” or “flood myths.”
- Once students have chosen an image depicting a flood story, explain to them that instead of creating a work of art based on a piece of literature like Castiglione did, they will be reversing the process and writing a story based on a piece of art. Invite them to compose a story, myth, or narration describing what happened before, during, and after the flood scene in their image. Their writing should be an account of what is happening in the artwork and should include descriptive details.
- Invite students to share their stories with the class, explaining why they included certain details, how they came up with the ideas for their stories, which visual clues helped them in writing their story, etc.
- One copy of the story of Deucalion and Pyrrha
- For younger students, we recommend D'Aulaires' Book of Greek Myths
- For older students, we recommend Ovid’s Metamorphoses. The story of Deucalion and Pyrrha can be found in Book I of Metamorphoses, lines 274-415. A full-text online copy of the epic is presented by the Electronic Text Center at the University of Virginia Library
- Pencils/pens and papers
- Research materials with images of other artworks depicting flood stories (Students can begin at Google Images and do a search of “flood stories” or “flood myths.”)
- About the Art section on Deucalion and Pyrrha
- One color copy of the painting for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Research and Reasoning
- Writing and Composition
- Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
Born in Genoa, Italy, Giovanni [joe-VAHN-knee] Benedetto Castiglione [cast-eel-lee-OH-nay] was one of the most influential Genoese artists of the 1600s. Castiglione’s eclectic style can be partially attributed to his many teachers and his travels to nearly every major artistic center of Italy. He is known for his prints, monotypes, extraordinary drawings in pen and ink, and oils on paper. The most distinct and praised features of his art are his brilliant colors and highly skilled execution. His subjects were drawn from a variety of sources: the Old Testament, classical mythology, ancient history, and 16th century Italian literature. He received commissions for large altarpieces for churches throughout Italy, as well as for paintings for many major clients. Additionally, he and his workshop produced a number of ready-for-sale works for any number of clients during his lifetime. It might be argued that his work was far better appreciated after his death.
What Inspired It?
This painting is based on a Greek mythological story called the “Flood of Deucalion,” which comes from the first book of Ovid’s Metamorphosis. The story goes: After the Greek god Zeus witnessed human arrogance and impiety, he decided to destroy the entire human race with an immense flood. Deucalion [do-KAY-lee-on] was warned by his father, the god Prometheus, of the imminent doom and was told to build an ark, which he and his wife Pyrrha [PEER-uh] floated upon for nine days before settling safely on Mount Parnassus. It was now this pious couple’s duty to repopulate the earth, so they went to the oracle of the goddess Themis to learn how to accomplish this. Themis responded, “Depart from my temple, veil your heads, loosen the girdles of your garments, and throw behind you the bones of our great mother.” Unsure of the meaning of this cryptic response, Deucalion suggested that “great mother” implied Mother Earth, and that “the bones” were, in fact, stones. As they threw the stones behind them, Deucalion’s stones turned into men and Pyrrha’s turned into women.
The upper and lower halves of this painting are quite different. Deucalion and Pyrrha are the only figures in the relatively calm upper half, sharing the space with the temple column and the clearing sky. The chaotic lower half is filled with a mass of newly created human beings with no ground line to support them. The figures all churn towards the center of the painting, making it difficult to match faces with limbs.
When depicting the new human race, Castiglione seems to be more interested in portraying human types rather than portraits of individuals. A few speculations on the depictions: a soldier, a drunk, an artist, lovers, a muse/intellectual, and possibly a scientist.
Scholars suspect that some of the objects depicted in the lower half may be clues to the human types that may have been portrayed. It has also been suggested that the objects allude to the senses: taste, hearing, touch, and sight. The objects include: a dagger (for the soldier), a lidded metal urn (held by one of the lovers), a document (possibly some form of literature for the intellectual), an astrolabe (an astronomical instrument for the scientist), a glass orb, and a hunting horn.
It was not uncommon for an artist during this time to include a picture of himself within a painting. There is one person amid the chaotic mass who seems calm as he reaches out with a paintbrush to sign the underside of a vase. The face of this figure, as well as his hat, resembles Castiglione’s known self-portraits. This hat is consistent with 17th century fashion and differs from the laurel wreaths worn by the others, as if Castiglione has nestled a modern image of himself into an ancient scene.
The stormy skies in the background show evidence of the recent flood that brought Deucalion and Pyrrha to this scene. The darkest clouds seem to be clearing behind them and could be symbolic of the new day of humanity.
The name Pyrrha means flaming, flame-colored, orange. Deucalion’s burnt orange robe whirls upwards like a flame and dominates the upper half of the composition. A similar color used on several areas in the lower half unites the two parts of the painting.
Castiglione used several strategies to heighten the drama in this painting. He chose bright colors that not only add excitement to the painting but probably also helped when it was hung in a dimly lit room. Dramatic lighting makes spot-lighted figures pop out of the darkened background. Deuacalion and Pyrrha’s arms stir up action with pinwheel motions. The artist has created a turbulent composition in which everything seems to be in motion except for the large sturdy column.