History Detectives

Lesson Plan


Students will put on their “detective hats” and use magnifying glasses to find evidence that supports attributing the paintings in the Molleno Altar Screen to one artist and one piece. They will work in small groups and present a case to share with the entire class. They will also explore what would need to be different for them to prove that the pieces do not belong together.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 45 minute lesson

Standards Area

Visual Arts


Students will be able to:

  • describe what an altar screen is;
  • state that Molleno painted the scenes for this particular altar screen;
  • develop and support a theory or hypothesis using details and logic; and
  • share what they think and have learned with other students and the teacher.


  1. Warm-up: For students old enough to spell: Play “Queenie Likes.” In the game, Queenie likes anything spelled with two letters in a row, for example “pillow” or “marshmallow.” You would say, “Queenie likes pizza but not pasta,” or “Queenie likes pepper but not salt.” Students try to guess and figure out what she likes. Tell them that if they have played the game before or figure out what Queenie likes that they may help you give examples. Encourage students to try out their theories on what Queenie likes by making their own statements. Play the game long enough where students can develop their own theories but don’t get too frustrated. Share that adults have a hard time with this game and praise them for every attempt. For students who are not yet spellers: Play an observation game. Have them look at a section of the room for one minute and then turn around. When they turn around they have to recall as many things as possible in that section of the room.
  2. Tell students that you are all history detectives. Someone has brought you eight paintings and tells you that she believes the paintings were done by the same person. She has to be able to prove her theory, however, and that’s where the students come in. Divide them into groups of four and have them collect their evidence. They should develop theories and support these using images and details from the paintings. Encourage them to look at the faces, hands, clothing, type of paint, painting style, etc. using their magnifying glasses. Have them write down their observations.
  3. After students have had enough time to develop theories, have them write their findings on the board or on sticky notes you can post on the wall. Allow each group time to present their theories and evidence.
  4. Ask students if they saw anything that made them think that the paintings do not go together. Allow time for them to share and discuss their ideas.
  5. Using the About the Art sheet, teach students about the paintings and Molleno to place their work in context.


  • One magnifying glass for every four students (preferably at least 4” wide)
  • Lined paper and pencil/pen for every four students
  • About the Art sheet on the Molleno Altar Screen (found at the end of the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
  • One color copy of the painting for every four students. Copies should be enlarged to enable students to see small details.


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • Invention
  • Self-Direction

About the Art

Altar Screen

Altarscreen panels mounted in contemporary framework

circa 1825


Who Made It?

Molleno worked as an artist in the Chimayó area of northern New Mexico from approximately 1800–1845. He is referred to as a santero—an artist who creates santos, or holy images. A scholar, E. Boyd, discovered a painting of Saint Francis with an inscription on the reverse that reads "San Francisco pitido [sic] el ano 1845 por el escultor Molleno.” “Saint Francis painted in the year 1845 by the sculptor Molleno.” Based on this inscription, art historians are able to attribute other works with matching characteristics to Molleno. During his career, Molleno developed three different styles of painting, referred to as his early, middle, and late periods. He moved from creating somewhat realistic figures to more simplified, abstract figures.

What Inspired It?

Altar screens were generally placed behind the altar in a church, or on the side walls. The painted wooden panels within the frame, called retablos, depict images of Catholic saints, the Christ Child, and the Virgin Mary. The wooden frame on this screen was designed and created by former Denver Art Museum curator Robert Stroessner, in order to show how the panels would have been displayed in a Catholic church in New Mexico. Santos, the holy images portrayed in the individual panels, served as devotional figures that played an important role in church, community, and family rituals. Saints provided a way for individuals to communicate with God. They are identified by visual attributes, or symbols that represent important aspects of their lives (see examples the "Details” section). Santos also served an educational purpose. The figures portrayed here would have been familiar to most of the church-going population in New Mexico during this time. Many of these people could not read, so images were used to tell stories, instead of the written word.


Saint Joseph and the Christ Child
Saint Joseph and the Christ Child

The panel in the center of the top row shows Saint Joseph holding the Christ Child in his right arm, and holding a flowering staff in his left hand.

Virgin Mary
Virgin Mary

The Virgin Mary is located on the right side of the bottom row. She stands on a crescent moon wearing a blue cloak—two visual attributes associated with her.

Saint Christopher
Saint Christopher

Saint Christopher, the patron saint of travelers, can be found in the bottom left panel. A child once asked Christopher to carry him across a river. As they made their way across, the child grew increasingly heavy and Christopher struggled. When they reached the other side, the child revealed himself as Christ, and told Christopher that he had just carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. Christopher planted his staff by the edge of the river where it became a palm tree. He is recognized by the staff he carries in his right hand and the Christ Child in his left.

Saint Barbara
Saint Barbara

Saint Barbara can be seen in the center panel with a tower in the background. The tower represents a story in which her jealous father locked her in a tower, claiming she was too beautiful to be seen.


The eyes of the figures are simplified. A series of semi-circular lines make up the outline of each eye, and a dark dot is used to form the pupil.


A thin horizontal stripe of paint is crossed by short vertical lines to form the mouth. The lips, along with the eyes, are characteristic of Molleno’s more abstracted style.


The hands of the figures are not realistic. The fingers are long, and the thumbs are distended and form awkward angles with the rest of the hand. Notice the disproportionate size of the hands on the image of the Christ Child.

Chili Pepper Elements
Chili Pepper Elements

The tables and draperies are stylized and look like triangular chili peppers. An earlier name given to Molleno—the “Chili Painter”—refers to his tendency to create these chili pepper designs.


The figures’ heads are turned slightly to the side, so that we are presented with a ¾ view of the face, with a portion of the right side hidden. This position is characteristic of Molleno’s style.

Nose and Beard
Nose and Beard

Molleno often gave attention to the nose and beard of the figures. Notice here the dark outline around the figures’ noses, and the solid beards on the male figures.

Empty Niche
Empty Niche

The empty frame on the bottom row would probably have held a sculpture of a saint, called a bulto. Bultos were also made by santeros.

Funding for lesson plans provided by a grant from the Morgridge Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by the William Randolph Hearst Endowment for Education Programs, and Xcel Energy Foundation. We thank our colleagues at the University of Denver Morgridge College of Education.