If…Then…Ideas for History

Lesson Plan


Presented with two different objects, the Altar Screen and Death Cart, students will develop hypotheses about the pieces. They will then compare their hypotheses with the factual information. A short research project on the role of Catholicism in New Mexico, a result of Spanish influence, creates a more complete understanding of factors influencing the artists.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 50 minute lesson

Standards Area

Social Studies


Students will be able to:

  • use visual data to develop a hypothesis;
  • test a hypothesis using data from another source;
  • explain that New Mexico and parts of Colorado used to be under Spanish and Mexican control; and
  • use multiple resources to formulate and answer questions.


  1. Warm Up: Read the “Things to Look For” information on the Altar Screen and Death Cart on the About the Art sheets.
  2. Show students the images of the Altar Screen and Death Cart. Ask where they think the objects were made. Why? What evidence do they have? Ask what religion inspired these artworks. Why? (Be sensitive that not all students will be familiar with Catholic imagery. Some students might not have any context for the images. Be open to suggestions based on their various cultural backgrounds.)
  3. After the students offer several hypotheses, with supporting reasons, have them get into groups of 2-3 in which they will read the information provided about the piece.
  4. Have them identify which hypotheses are supported by what they read and which are not. They need to be able to support their position. Also have them list important information that none of the hypotheses took into account.
  5. Show students where New Mexico is located using Google Earth or the maps you provided, tracing a route from their home state. Explain that Spain and Mexico used to control parts of New Mexico and Southern Colorado.
  6. Have students work in groups of 2-3 and read the resources or watch the videos you’ve provided about rituals associated with the objects. Tell the students that the Death Cart is more of a ritual object than the Altar Screen. You can also show them the interiors of churches in New Mexico, like Chimayo, and talk about the importance of imagery in Catholic churches. Have them write a short summary of what they learned about the rituals. Have them also write three questions they still have. As an extension, invite students to research these questions further.


  • Internet access or in-class resources on Catholicism in the New World under Spain, including New Mexico
  • Access to Google Earth, a map of the United States, or a globe
  • Additional resources about the rituals/ceremonies associated with the objects
  • Copies of About the Art sheet on the Altar Screen and Death Cart (found at the end of the lesson) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
  • Color copies of the Altar Screen and Death Cart for students to share, or the ability to project the images onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Social Studies

21st Century Skills

  • Collaboration
  • Critical Thinking & Reasoning
  • Information Literacy
  • 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.