Students will learn about the x-rays taken of Zenale’s painting Madonna and Child with Saints, and how they show several changes he made during the creative process. Students will discuss the importance of trial and error methods, and the willingness to make changes to get things “just right.”
Intended Age GroupSecondary (grades 6-12)
Length of LessonOne 55 minute lesson
Standards AreaVisual Arts
Students will be able to:
- describe what x-ray examination revealed about Zenale’s painting;
- discuss the type of practice and training Zenale would have had to go through to make such a painting; and
- explain why making errors is an important part of the creative process;
- Warm-up: Give students the following brain teaser: A man leaves home. He takes a right turn (pause), a left turn (pause), another left turn (pause), another left turn (pause), and then returns home where he sees a man in a mask. Where is he? Students will need to ask yes/no questions to try to figure out the solution. Encourage all questions, supporting the students who take a risk to ask a question. Tell them that they can’t solve the brain teaser without asking questions. When someone thinks he or she knows the answer, have them come up and whisper it in your ear so the other students can keep guessing. The answer is that the man is on a baseball field and returned home to find the catcher. Once they reach a solution, remind them of how many “wrong” questions had to be asked to get to the correct answer.
- Tell students that they are going to draw quick portraits of each other. They don’t have to be perfect, but the students should get something down on paper. Tell them that they will be able to make changes when they are done and not to worry about being perfect. When they are finished, have them change one thing in the portrait that will make it seem more “right” to them.
- Discuss how it felt in both situations to have to try something that might have been hard? Did it help them to know that they did not have to ask the exact right question or draw something perfectly the first time? Were they more willing to keep going knowing they had another chance and could make changes? Talk about making errors. Are they comfortable with doing so? Why or why not? What happens when people don’t make errors? (i.e. avoidance of risk or complex tasks required to learn skills, etc.).
- Tell students that being able to create something or solve a problem requires a balance between risk-taking and avoidance. Show students the Zenale painting and give them a few minutes to study it. Use the About the Art section to guide their observations. Pass out copies of the Repairing the Ravages of Time handout, which is displayed alongside Zenale’s painting at the Denver Art Museum. Discuss how Zenale took risks and worked through multiple revisions along the way to get to a finished piece. Talk about what it took for him to learn to paint at this level, and the experimentation and openness he employed along the way.
- Have students rework their portraits from earlier, allowing them to edit and create new pieces where necessary. Encourage them to take risks and try new techniques and ideas. When they are finished, discuss how their first piece allowed them to make the necessary changes to their second piece.
- Unlined paper and pencil for each student
- About the Art section on Madonna and Child with Saints
- One color copy of the painting for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Repairing the Ravages of Time handout
- Visual Arts
- Observe and Learn to Comprehend
- Relate and Connect to Transfer
- Language Arts
- Oral Expression and Listening
- Reading for All Purposes
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
Bernardo Zenale was born in 1464 and worked as a painter and architect during the Italian Renaissance. He spent much of his painting career in Milan, working on altarpieces for churches. By the time he was 17 years old, Zenale had reached the status of a master painter. His later work seems to have been influenced by the work of Leonardo da Vinci. In this painting, the way in which Zenale uses light to mold his figures and emphasize drapery is reminiscent of Leonardo’s style. Zenale was skilled in the use of perspective in painting, which allowed him to create the illusion of three-dimensions while painting on a two-dimensional surface. He wrote a treatise on the subject late in life, though no known copies remain. By 1513, Zenale appears to have begun devoting his career to architecture, eventually becoming one of two general architects for the Milan cathedral.
What Inspired It?
The image of the Virgin Mary with the Christ Child and saints was a common image in Renaissance art and was typically found in altarpieces. The image that we see here was commissioned for a church in Milan, the Church of San Francesco Grande. When an artist is commissioned to create an artwork, there are often guidelines that they have to follow. While Zenale painted according to his own artistic techniques, he would have been told what subject to paint and how large to make it. The Italian Renaissance was one of the most productive periods in the history of art. During the Renaissance, art and science were closely connected. The art of painting benefited greatly from the advancement of two particular fields of study: anatomy and mathematical perspective. Anatomy, which is the study of the human body, allowed artists to more accurately portray realistic figures. Mathematical perspective helped artists represent three-dimensional figures and objects on a two-dimensional surface. Zenale uses a number of techniques in his paintings to show perspective.
The appearance of an object in nature is altered by the air that is between the viewer and the object. It often appears that there is a haze covering objects that are far away. This is known as atmospheric perspective. Zenale makes the mountain in the distance appear lighter in color and slightly fuzzy so that we can tell that it’s far away from where the figures are.
The miniscule size of the figures in the background tells the viewer that they are far away from the much larger figures in the foreground. Diminishing size is another technique that Zenale uses to create perspective.
Mary’s foot appears as though it is projecting into space. Zenale creates this effect by shortening the lines he uses to paint the foot—a technique called foreshortening.
Zenale uses light and shadow to add to the illusion of three dimensions. Notice how changes in shape, like the folds in the cloth, are created by gradual changes from light to dark, rather than sharp lines. It is somewhat difficult to tell where the light is coming from; it almost seems to come from multiple sources.
The man standing on the left side of the picture is Saint Ambrose, who was the bishop of Milan. St. Ambrose is the patron saint of beekeepers, geese, and orators. He was known to be a great speaker. A popular story tells of St. Ambrose as a baby, when a swarm of bees landed on his mouth, foreshadowing his gift as an orator.
Each of the figures in the painting has visual attributes that help the viewer identify who they are. In Zenale’s painting, St. Ambrose is shown carrying a staff, indicating the bishop’s role as a shepherd of Christ’s flock. He also holds a riding whip, which represents his assertiveness. St. Ambrose kneels upon the head of a warrior, which may reference his fight against the Arians, a group of people who denied the divinity of Jesus Christ. Or it could be a reference to a battle that took place in 1338, when St. Ambrose appeared before the troops, miraculously protecting the Milanese forces.
On the right side of the painting sits Saint Jerome, the patron saint of librarians and students. As is common, he is shown with grey hair and beard. He is depicted here as a man of learning, with a pen in his hand and a piece of paper on his knee, a reference to his translation of the Bible into Latin. The lion who sits at Jerome’s feet refers to a story in which a lion came to a monastery looking for help because he had a thorn in his paw. All of the people in the monastery fled, except for Jerome, who could see that the lion was hurt. Jerome removed the thorn from the lion’s paw and from that day forward, the lion remained always in Jerome’s company. The image of a lion is a visual attribute commonly associated with St. Jerome.
Mary sits on a rock formation that resembles a throne. The color blue is a common attribute of Mary’s—here she is shown draped in blue cloth. Her gaze is soft and it is difficult to tell what her eyes are focused on.
A strawberry plant grows out of the rocks upon which Mary sits. The strawberry is the symbol of perfect righteousness and is often seen in reference to the Virgin Mary.
The skull is meant to remind the viewer of the transitory nature of life on earth. When the cross is represented with the skull, as it is here, it suggests meditation on eternal life after death.
Individual brushstrokes create texture in St. Jerome’s beard. The white inside of his robe appears to be furry.
See if you can find the hidden face at the top of the arch to the left.