Students will learn about key elements in a story and use their powers of observation and imagination to write a story inspired by the Death Cart.
Intended Age GroupElementary (grades K-5)
Length of LessonOne 50 minute lesson
Standards AreaLanguage Arts
Students will be able to:
- list at least five descriptive words for the Death Cart;
- identify “who, what, when, where, and why” details for the Death Cart;
- use their imaginations to create a story based on hypotheses they develop; and
- write a story that includes a beginning, a middle, and an end that resolves some conflict developed in the middle of the story.
- Teacher Preparation: Read the “Things to Look For” information on the Death Cart (found on the Creativity Resource website and in the About the Art sheet).
- Warm up: Ask students to form a story-telling circle. Tell students that you are going to say one sentence of a story. The student to your right will say, “Yes, and…” and then add the next sentence. Continue in this fashion until everyone in the circle has added two sentences.
- Discuss what worked with the story created in the story-telling circle and what elements of a story may have been missing. Address characters, setting, beginning, middle, end, conflict resolution, etc.
- Have the students read at least two articles from a children’s magazine or newspaper. Ask them to identify the “who, what, when, where, and why” aspects of the articles. Then have the students discuss what parts of the story were effective or ineffective. Divide the class into four groups (or eight groups if the class is too large).
- Without showing the students the image of the whole Death Cart, give each group one of the detail images from the “Things to Look For” section of the About the Art sheet. Ask each group to brainstorm on what they believe the overall image is. Based on their brainstorming, have each student write a story individually. Make sure to reinforce what you’ve been teaching about writing or telling stories in class, or use this lesson as an opportunity to cover essential elements. Note: For younger children, you may have them tell stories to a partner if they are not yet able to write down their ideas. Parents or other volunteers could also assist in this process.
- Allow time for peer editing back in groups, and then call on volunteers from each group to read their stories to the class.
- Compare what is similar and what is different about the stories. Why? How did the selected image influence what the students brainstormed and wrote about?
- Show students the entire sculpture and read about the artist, the meaning of the sculpture, and what to look for. Ask the students if any of them would have imagined all of the pieces put together as they were. You could also ask them if having the complete image would have changed their story.
- Paper and pens or pencils
- Copies of About the Art sheet on the Death Cart (found at the end of the lesson plan) or student access to this part of Creativity Resource online
- One color copy of the Death Cart for every four students, or the ability to project the image onto a wall or screen
- Language Arts
21st Century Skills
- Critical Thinking & Reasoning
- Information Literacy
About the Art
Who Made It?
Not much is known about artist José Inéz Herrera. He worked in El Rito, New Mexico, from the late 1800s to the early 1900s. He is known as either El Rito Santero or Death Cart Santero. Santeros, artists who created holy images, learned from local Pueblo Indians how to make paints from plants and minerals in the area. They combined these regional paints with imported oil paints from Mexico to create distinctive sculptures and paintings for Catholic New Mexican churches, homes, and worship spaces. This sculpture is made of wood, gesso (primer paint), silk, and animal hair. The skeletal figure represents a long religious tradition within the Catholic Church. Images of Death were associated with Holy Week rituals in Spain, Italy, Mexico, and New Mexico. In Catholic tradition, Holy Week is the week before Easter, the day Jesus rose from the dead.
What Inspired It?
The image of Death is an image from the Catholic tradition of the Passion of Christ. The Passion story includes all of the events leading up to the Crucifixion of Jesus Christ, as well as the Crucifixion itself. The skeletal figure in this cart represents Death. The artist exaggerated different parts of the figure to create a sense of drama. He gave the skeleton long, thin arms and legs and carved out deep-set, hollow eyes. The skeleton’s neck and torso are also very long, and its chin comes to a dramatic point. The large crooked teeth have been arranged into what looks like a smile.
The Saturday before Easter, carts like this one would have been pulled in a procession, symbolizing the brief period of Death’s triumph on Earth before Christ rose from the dead, escaping Death’s clutches. Sometimes a Death Cart would follow Christ on the road to Crucifixion, haunting the last stages of the Passion. During the rest of the year, these figures were used as a reminder of the inevitability of death.
In New Mexican imagery, death figures are often dressed in women’s clothing. The fact that the Spanish word muerte, or death, is feminine may account for the predominantly female character in New Mexico. Death figures are sometimes nicknamed “Doña Sebastiana” in New Mexico. The origins of this folk tradition are unknown but probably stem from a feminization of Saint Sebastian, a Christian saint who was said to have been killed by arrows.
Notice the skeleton’s deep-set eyes, large teeth, elongated torso and limbs, and oversized feet.
The skeleton wears a black woven rebozo, or shawl, that covers the head and is draped around the body.
In New Mexico, most death figures wield a bow and arrow. Images of death from other parts of the world carry a scythe, an ax, or a hatchet.
The handle would have been used to pull the cart in a Holy Week procession.