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Art theme: history paintings

History paintings relate important stories and – perhaps confusingly – the category includes religious and mythological stories alongside historical scenes. Often these works contain an important message and the size of the work (its scale) can be significant as a result.

Contextual background for teachers

Niccolò Mauruzi da Tolentino at the Battle of San Romano (1438–1440)
Paulo Uccello (1397–1475)

Medium: egg tempera with walnut oil and linseed oil on poplar
Dimensions: H 182 x W 320 cm

One of three panels that comprised the whole scene, this large-scale history painting in London's National Gallery recalls a Florentine victory over the neighbouring Sienese. Today the other two panels are in the Louvre in Paris and the Uffizi Galleries in Florence.

The Italian artist Paulo Uccello is described by his biographer Giorgio Vasari as becoming quite obsessed with perspective – he recounts the story of how Uccello's wife complained that the artist stayed up all night wrestling with vanishing points and exclaiming, 'Oh, what a lovely thing perspective is!'

Do you think he was successful in creating a real, three-dimensional space that you could walk into? Or, do you think that the real conflict was between two and three dimensions for this artist? In one sense it appears flat and in another modelled in space. Where are these much-celebrated lines of perspective (linear perspective) most evident? Can you spot the use of foreshortening? What, in contrast, makes this painting feel flat and decorative?

Look, describe and discuss

Open a full-screen version of the zoomable image in a new window.

Ask your students to describe the artwork, encouraging them to simply say what they can see.

You can start by showing the whole image, and then use the zoom feature to explore details of the painting. Or you might like to start by using the zoom feature to show a detail from the image, and then zoom out to see more.

Encourage your students to look carefully – this is their superpower! It's best to not give too much background information about the artwork at this stage, so students can develop their own ideas and opinions.

Nudge questions

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

  • Who or what does the artist want us to look at first? Is there a focal point?
  • How is action expressed? Does this battle scene appear realistic?
  • Does it feel safe to walk into this scene? Would it be peaceful or noisy, ordered or chaotic? Explain your answer.
  • Is it a true-to-life realistic painting? Why or why not? (Tip: ask your students to consider scale and proportion, shadows and shading.)

Questions from The Superpower of Looking Kit

Now we can start to explore the 'elements' of the painting.

Use The Superpower of Looking Kit to ask questions about the artwork.

For this artwork, you will focus on:

  • Figures (expression and gesture)
  • Space
  • Colour (e.g. is colour used expressively or decoratively?)

Ask your students to evidence their points:

  • where exactly are they looking when they make a statement?
  • can everybody see what they see?
  • slow down, take time to really look closely

You may like to introduce knowledge from the contextual background for teachers at this point.

Everyone learning

You can find out more about The Superpower of Looking® SEND/ASD/ALN approach on the Superpower homepage.

Now it's time to explore the artwork in different ways. This list of sensory activities encourages students to apply their learning and can suit a variety of learning needs.




  • To set the scene, listen to this extract of a piece of music by the most famous European composer of the early fifteenth century, Guillaume Dufay. It was composed around the same time as this painting was created.

  • Now listen to the sounds of a battle. What sound effects would your students make to create a soundscape for the painting? What would they use to create these sounds?



  • Different textures in the painting: the metal of the armour, the velvet used to make Niccolò's hat, the wood of the lances and shields.



  • Be inspired by the painting to create a freeze frame or tableau showing a battle scene. How will students position themselves to suggest action and conflict?



  • Listen to these children as they take a look at the painting in this video from the National Gallery. Did the children spot anything your class didn't see? Do they agree with the children's ideas about the battle?

  • Learn the Makaton sign or British Sign Language for 'soldier'.

Final stage: review

Ask your students to:

  • share their sketchbooks in groups and discuss the 'elements' they have identified
  • choose an element/aspect they find most interesting about the artwork and record it in their sketchbooks
  • choose their own name/s for the title of the artwork
  • think of a question they would like to ask the artist



You have now completed this lesson resource on The Superpower of Looking.

There are more resources in this theme to try – have a look at the 'next lessons' section below.

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