Sacred Secrets

Lesson Plan


Inspired by the Figure Seated on a Bench, students will design and create their own treasure box, identify positive traits about themselves, and illustrate the box with visual representations of their positive traits.

Intended Age Group

Elementary (grades K-5)

Length of Lesson

One 45 minute lesson

Standards Area

Visual Arts


Students will be able to

  • identify at least three artistic characteristics of the Figure Seated on a Bench;
  • identify positive traits in themselves and others
  • create an illustration that visually depicts one of their positive traits;
  • create a treasure box that represents themselves; and
  • present their boxes to the class and explain the significance of their box.


  1. Warm-up: Have the students write their name at the top of a piece of paper and then pass it to the person on their left. Invite the students to write down a positive trait or comment about the person whose name is at the top of the paper in front of them. Continue passing to the left until each student has written on all the sheets and everyone has their original sheet back.
  2. Display Figure Seated on a Bench for the students to see. Ask them questions such as: What do you think this figure is? What do you think he is made of? How do you think it was used? What shapes do you notice on the figure? Point out details such as the headdress, the creature with a spiral tail on the back of the figure, and the exaggerated legs.
  3. Using the About the Art sheet, explain that the headdress comes off and the figure is actually hollow. The figure is believed to have held something very precious or sacred. Also point out that the creature with the spiral tail is believed to be either an alter-ego or a spirit-companion who supports and strengthens the man.
  4. Have the students brainstorm what they think are their greatest characteristics. Ideas can be anything from physical characteristics (hair, smile, skin color), to talents (music, athletics, hobbies), to personality traits (kind, friendly, dedicated) and write them down on a piece of paper. If students have trouble thinking of positive traits, remind them that they are all unique and awesome and have them look back at what their classmates wrote on the warm-up sheets.
  5. Ask the students to choose one characteristic from their list and draw a creature that illustrates that attribute. For example, a girl who likes her hair might draw a mermaid with similar hair, a student who is a fast runner might draw a cheetah, or a student who enjoys reading might draw a literary superhero. Remind students that, just like the creature with a spiral tail on the back of the Popayán figure, the creatures don’t have to be real, they can be completely imagined!
  6. Explain to the students that they will each be making a treasure box to hold their most prized possessions and they will decorate it with the creature they created as a way of representing their positive traits.
  7. Provide each student with a small cardboard box and colored pencils, markers, or paint and paintbrushes. Give the students time to decorate their boxes. Encourage them to include geometric designs on their boxes similar to the designs on the figure’s headdress, shield, and necklace.
  8. Invite the students to present their treasure boxes to the class, explaining the significance and meaning of the creature they created.


  • Paper and pencils
  • Small cardboard box per student
  • Colored pencils, markers, or paint and paintbrushes
  • About the Art sheet on Figure Seated on a Bench (found at the end of the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
  • One color copy of the figure for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen


CO Standards

  • Visual Arts

21st Century Skills

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

About the Art

Figure Seated on a Bench

Figure Seated on a Bench

Before A.D. 1500


Who Made It?

Little is known about the peoples of the Cauca River Valley in west-central Colombia who produced Popayán [po-pah-YAHN] style gold and ceramics. The dates of the Popayán style, reminiscent of several surrounding artistic traditions, are yet to be determined. Though we do not have a lot of information about it, this piece is the most impressive known example of Popayán ceramic art. Two similar vessels are known, but this is the only complete example. The artist modeled this figure out of buff-colored, gritty clay, which was then fired to a light grey/tan.

What Inspired It?

The original function of this object is unclear, but it seems likely that this figure once held very precious or sacred materials of some kind. The figure’s headdress is removable, and the body serves as a vessel. Bones or cremated human remains were often stored in human effigy containers, but these are usually much larger. Stools or benches were important symbols of rank in ancient Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica. The figure’s commanding pose, with his right hand to his chest, his headdress, shield, and jewelry all indicate a person of power, wealth, and importance.



The figure wears a necklace, probably made to represent gold, around his neck. The hole on the figure’s nose most likely held a golden nose ornament.

Geometric Designs
Geometric Designs

Geometric patterning decorates both the headdress and the shield. The artist may have carved the designs on the headdress to indicate feathers.

Exaggerated Features
Exaggerated Features

Exaggerated and abstracted features draw attention to various parts of the figure’s body. The face has puffy, slit-like eyes, often called coffee bean eyes. The feet are huge, with toenails carved into the tips of splayed toes.

Swollen Legs
Swollen Legs

The swollen calves reflect the use of ligatures (tight bands) that are tied below the knee and at the ankle to strengthen muscles. This practice is still used by some Amazonian peoples today.

Creature with the Spiral Tail
Creature with the Spiral Tail

A lizard-like creature with a long, curled tail is perched on the back of the figure. This creature is either a costume element or a representation of a shamanic alter ego. Shamans are religious practitioners who interact with the spirit world.

Lack of Clothes
Lack of Clothes

The figure wears numerous decorative items but no clothing. The figure’s genitals are exposed as a symbol of generative power as was common in the art of Colombia, the Amazon basin, and southern Central America.

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.