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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. This is the case for the large religious painting in this lesson.

Contextual background for teachers

The Adoration of the Kings (1510–1515)
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 kings (also known as the wise men or magi) who came to worship the newly born Jesus and to give him their gifts.

According to the Bible, 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.

Jan Gossaert was a French-speaking artist from the Low Countries. He was one of the first Northern European Renaissance artists to visit Italy and was employed by a range of royal and noble families. Across Europe during the Renaissance, new techniques in oil painting had been developed to such a degree that every texture and minute detail could be painted in the most astonishing way.

Gossaert seems to have painted this altarpiece between 1510 and 1515 for the church of St Adrian at Geraardsbergen in East Flanders (which is in Belgium today). 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 why Gossaert painted the kings' clothing in such rich detail.

On King Baltazar's crown, the signature of the artist can be seen. Text also appears in several other places within the painting. In blue at the bottom of Baltazar's scarf is written the start of a prayer. There is writing on the scroll held by the angel in green on the left which translates to 'glory to God in the highest'. Finally, on the lid of the chalice of myrrh at the Virgin's feet presented by King Caspar, his name is written.

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.

An audio description of the painting is available. It is accompanied by a full written transcript which can also be used to describe the painting.

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 experience if you were transported into the painting?

Questions from The Superpower of Looking Kit

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

For this artwork, you will focus on:

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 can introduce knowledge from the contextual background for teachers while asking these bespoke questions with helpful responses which can be found in the teachers' notes.

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.


  • Students design their own royal robes in their sketchbook, including different patterns, textures and colours. Can they include their name as a hidden detail?



  • Listen to the audio description of the painting.


  • Listen to this extract of music by Josquin Desprez, the most famous European composer of the early sixteenth century. Josquin came from the same area of Europe as Gossaert, and this piece of music was part of a setting for a church service called a Mass.


  • Get your students to touch textures from the painting: fur, silk and leather.



  • Create a procession around the classroom as if the class were ordinary people journeying to see Jesus. Encourage students to share conversations about how they are feeling and what they would they expect when they arrive.



  • Learn the Makaton sign or British Sign Language for 'angel'.
  • Students strike a (frozen) pose as a king, shepherd or angel. Other students have to guess who they are.

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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