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The History category

History paintings relate important stories and the category includes religious, mythological and historical scenes. Often these works contain an important message and the size of the work (scale) can be significant as a result. This is the case for the large religious painting focused on in this lesson.

The Adoration of the Kings (1510–1515)

by Jan Gossaert (c.1478–1532)

Medium: oil on oak
Dimensions: H 177.2 x W 161.8 cm

This large painting illustrates the Biblical story of the three wise kings, who came to worship the newly born Jesus Christ and to give him their gifts. They had travelled a long way, following a mysterious star from the east that eventually led them to the stable in Bethlehem where Christ was born. His parents, Mary and Joseph, had not been able to find a room in an inn. In Gossaert's scene, the stable has been substituted for a palace, now in ruins. Two shepherds are also looking on in the background, and beyond them, an angel sent by God is telling shepherds about the birth of Christ too.

The artist, Jan Gossaert lived in Northern Europe, where new techniques in oil painting had been developed to such a degree that every texture and minute detail could be described in the most astonishing way. Gossaert seems to have painted this altarpiece between 1510 and 1515 for a church in Belgium known as St Adrian at Geraardsbergen in East Flanders. It is said that the church had a piece of clothing belonging to one of the Three Kings in its possession in 1519, so this may be the reason Gossaert has painted the Kings' clothing in such rich detail.

Tip: if you'd like more insight into the painting before teaching the lesson, an audio description is available, which has been developed for students with blindness or visual impairment to take part.

Stage 1: look, describe and discuss

The Adoration of the Kings

The Adoration of the Kings 1510-15

Jan Gossaert (c.1478–1532)

The National Gallery, London

Show your students this painting and ask them: Are they interested or not interested? Why?

Ask them to describe the figures and what's going on in the background and around them.

Don't tell them too much about what the picture represents at this stage. Once you have interpreted an image, or been told what to see, it is difficult to look freshly and critically at it or appreciate each other's views.

For students with blindness or visual impairment, an audio description of the painting is available to be listened to during this stage.

Tip: in class, use the zoom feature on the image below to look closer at details. You can open a full-screen version on The National Gallery's website.



Stage 2: nudge questions

Now when looking at the painting, ask more specific ('nudge') questions:

  • What do you think is going on here? Who or what does the artist want us to look at first?
  • How are the identities of the different figures in the painting expressed?
  • Besides the human figures, is there anything else in the painting that helps to set the scene?
  • What smells and sounds might you sense if you were transported into the painting?

Suggested activity: 'I spy...' sketches

Given the richness of Gossaert's painting, there is much to spot and discover – this activity will encourage your students to keep looking. They will need a pen or pencil and small squares of white paper (or sticky note pads).

Split your students into pairs. Ask them to take turns looking at the picture and saying 'I spy something beginning with the letter...'. The other student should then do a quick sketch of what they think their partner is looking at.

After a few rounds of the game, come together again as a class and make a circle around a clear space in the room. Ask your students to take turns laying down one of their sketches on the ground, placing it in relation to the other sketches and where the figure or object is located in The Adoration of the Kings.

You can extend this activity by asking your students to split the sketches into two groups: drawings of objects connected with heaven (e.g. angels, bright star) and those connected with earth (e.g. dogs sniffing around, cracked floor).

Pairs of students have a go at 'I spy...' sketches

Pairs of students have a go at 'I spy...' sketches

Stage 3: Superpower Kit questions

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting. Use the Superpower Kit to ask questions about the work and spark a discussion.  

We'd suggest focusing on the following areas to help your students 'read' the image (click to open the relevant Superpower Kit section):




Ask your students to evidence their points, e.g. where exactly are they looking when they make a statement? Can everybody see what they see?

Stage 4: bespoke questions

To support those teaching The Superpower of Looking for the first time, this additional stage can be used when teaching the first lesson in each category.

During this stage, you can introduce knowledge from the context box while asking these bespoke questions on the painting. If you've already covered any question through previous discussion, feel free to move on.

If it's required, guidance on what to look for can be found below the sets of questions.

Final stage: review

Ask your students: how interested are they in the image now? Why?

At this point, you may also want to give your students some time to record and review their observations in a sketchbook on their own or in pairs.


Comparison activity

Compare Gossaert's The Adoration of the Kings with either or both of the following two artworks:

In order to support the discussion with your students, you may wish to focus on the following areas of the Superpower Kit: Composition and Figures (particularly Gesture and Expression).

Cross-curricular activity: Religious Studies

Extend into a Religious Studies lesson by exploring art's relationship with religion.

Gossaert’s painting is one of many depictions of The Adoration of the Kings connected with the Christian faith. It is an example of how interlinked art and religion have been across time.

With your class, either:

  • explore Christianity further by comparing two or three different interpretations of The Adoration of The Kings linked above, discussing the recurring figures and symbols and how they relate to the nativity story;
  • or, focus on a different religion and an artwork associated with it. We suggest watching one of the 'My Life, My Faith' video resources on BBC Teach connected to a religion you've been studying in class, and then presenting associated religious artworks appropriate for the year group for discussion.

You can find artworks by searching through our Topic page on Religion and belief in advance, or by searching the specific religion using the artworks search bar. Some examples are provided below.

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