Sadness. Heartbreak. Remorse. Agony. Regret. Anguish. Despair.
Pictures speak! The children have viewed a painting called The Expulsion from the Garden by Masaccio c. 1424. After a few minutes of silence, the children identify who the people are – they know by the title and their familiarity with the Bible. Then one by one they describe Adam and Eve: Lamenting. Wailing. Grieving. Sorrowful. Doleful. Saddened. Naked. Frightened. Crying. Dead. Struck. In trouble. Left out. Kicked out.
Pictures do indeed speak! And this one by Masaccio has spoken volumes to the children. What went through their minds as they considered the way Masaccio has portrayed Adam and Eve? Did they feel the impact of having disobeyed God? In the time of silence, did they ask Why did they do it? or How are they feeling now? One of the beauties of picture study is the opportunity for a child to answer his own questions, not his teacher’s. In the July, 1901, issue of The Parents Review, edited by Charlotte Mason, Miss K.R. Hammond wrote the following in an article she called “Picture Talks”:
It is scarcely possible to begin these lessons too early… The teacher will probably find she has a very small role to play, her part being merely to secure attention for some point that the child is inclined to overlook, and to explain in a very few simple words those problems that the child cannot solve for himself. Definite teaching is out of the question; suitable ideas are easily given, and a thoughtful love of Art inspired by simple natural talk over the picture at which the child is looking.
(For the entire article see http://www.amblesideonline.org/PR/PR12p501PictureTalks.shtml )
For several years I have been applying Charlotte Mason’s approach by showing the works (secular and sacred) of the Masters to children during a co-op time we call Poetry and Paintings. After reading and reciting a few poems by A. A. Milne, Robert Lewis Stevenson, or Longfellow, for example, we then take a look at some paintings, just one or two a time. The group is aged four to twelve. Yes, the young ones are fidgety and don’t appear to be taking much in. But they are present, listening to the seven year old make some amazing observations. “It looks like they do not have clothes on,” she notes. “Didn’t God make them clothes?” A twelve year old pipes in, “Maybe the artist wanted to show more of their shame.”
The next week when I show the Masaccio painting again for a review of its name, a five year old hollers, “The Expulsion from the Garden!” They have no trouble remembering. Then I show them a new painting, The Brazen Serpent by Bourdon c. 1653. Same moments of silence for a bit as they look and I read the short passage from Numbers 21:4-9.
Then one of them asks, “Why are some of them grayish?” Another responds, “Maybe they are already dead or dying from being bit by the snakes.” “Look at the two kids reaching out. That must be their mom. She doesn’t look too good.” “Hey,” one notices, “why are there no other snakes around except the bronze one?” They’ve stumped me on this one. In fact, I had never noticed that before.
I ask them if they know John 3:16. Several recite it from memory. “Now, let’s hear what John 3:14,15 says.” And I read to them “Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness, so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.”
As we move through the year we briefly review the paintings we’ve seen and see if they can give the names. Fra Angelica’s The Annunciation, Michelangelo’s Pieta are remembered by even the youngest of them. We have talked about what the words annunciation and pieta mean. Week after week, I am amazed at the insight of young children as they observe and simply talk about these pictures and sculptures. The wisdom of Charlotte Mason! What a privilege to be present during their picture talks!
I also have the privilege of leading high school aesthetics classes at a private school. With the freshman I begin each year with the same Bible paintings. Not knowing how much picture study this group has been exposed to, I start with something they are familiar with: the Bible. They choose from my list a painting to study and the next week they turn in a written narration and present an oral narration to their classmates describing the painting. I’ve given no technical instruction and they have conducted no research. I asked them to consider these questions:
1. How closely does the painter’s rendering of the scene follow the biblical story?
2. Has the painter taken any poetic liberties, veering from the Bible? If so, why do you think?
3. Does the painting deepen your understanding of the Bible story depicted? If so, how?
From The Annunciation one freshman observed the presence of two figures in the background. They are gray, whereas, Gabriel and Mary are brightly colored. Fra Angelica includes Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden. The student recognizes that their Fall into sin and expulsion from Paradise is what necessitates Gabriel’s annunciation: the coming Redeemer to be conceived in the Virgin’s womb.
When one student chose Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast, I gave him the poem by Bryan Waller Proctor to present to the class as well. It begins
Belshazzar is king! Belshazzar is Lord!
And a thousand dark nobles all bend at his board…
This student’s narration included the opulence of the feast, the stolen goblets of gold being knocked over, spilling the wine, and the horror depicted in the faces of the revelers as they view the writing on the wall.
Though we do picture studies of famous secular art as well, the sacred art of the masters opens our eyes to deep insight into the Bible’s lessons. Miss Hammond quotes Ruskin, which is an apt conclusion: “The greatest picture is that which conveys to the mind the greatest number of the greatest ideas–and an idea is greater in proportion as it is received by a higher faculty of the mind, and as it more fully occupies, exercises and exalts the faculty by which it is received.” Through “Picture Talks” may the minds and hearts of young people be exalted to the truth and beauty depicted in these Bible paintings. May the skill of the masters display to them the grace of the Master.
© 2013 by Lori Lawing