1. Virtues and Symbolism

Grade Level

Grades 9-12, 90 Minutes


Every society and subset of society has their own virtues. Through this unit of study, students will learn what virtues their communities value and promote, allowing the students to assess whether their own personal beliefs align with these virtues. If they do, then students can move forward as a confident and engaged member of their own community and strive to cultivate these virtues in their own life. If their community’s virtues do not align with their beliefs, they will be encouraged to seek out or develop their own set of virtues to guide them as they progress through life.

In this unit of study, students will also work to develop their abstract thinking skills through the creation of symbols based off abstract concepts. Highly developed abstract thinking helps students to more easily process complex ideas and to use theories or metaphors to solve problems.

Key Concepts

   every society and subset of society has their own virtues
   virtues are context specific and highly situational
   virtues are an abstract concept often communicated through visual symbols in art
   animals have agreed upon associations that help them serve as visual representations of abstract concepts

Essential Questions

1. Why does my community value and promote these virtues?
2. How do we communicate the idea of a virtue to individuals in communities other than our own?


•   The student will be able to relate the abstract concept of virtues to concrete visual symbols through group discussions about related works of art and by creating thumbnail sketches serving as visual representations of virtues.
•   The student will be able to identify virtues that are valued and promoted in their communities today by interviewing friends and family and generating a list of their own virtues.
•   The student will be able to design and construct a sculpture that serves as a visual symbol of one virtue, of their choosing.

Specific Art Content

   art can be used as a form of communication
•   combinations of color, shape, and lines can be used to represent ideas
   drawing and painting techniques can be used for self-expression and communication

Resources and Materials

computer, projector, large screen, slideshow presentation with digital images of art about virtues, sketchbooks, pencils, colored pencils, markers, watercolors, acrylic paints, charcoal, pastel, paintbrushes

Instruction and Its Sequencing

Class will begin with a PowerPoint presentation of three different works of art.  Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue  (1502)  by Andrea Mantegna, Black Virtue  (1943)  by Roberto Matta Echaurren, and Virtue and Vice: Virtue  (1972)  by Enrique Grau. The teacher and class will discuss what symbolic imagery they see in these works. After viewing the works the teacher will ask the students what the works of art have in common, which will then segue into a discussion about Aristotelian virtues. (15 minutes)

The teacher should begin a discussion on the definition of virtues using the PowerPoint slideshow to display the relevant information being discussed. The working definition of virtues being used here is based of Aristotle’s writings on the subject in Nicomachean Ethics. A virtue is a trait or quality that helps us achieve excellence, in how we feel, how we think, and how we act. We must cultivate the virtues in ourselves to achieve “human flourishing.” The teacher will discuss how virtues are specific to their context and can change depending on the situation they are being applied to, and how every society and subset of society, including families, groups of friends, neighborhoods, and other various associations, has their own set of virtues. To provide an example of one set of virtues, the teacher will share the virtues that Aristotle wrote about, which include Courage, Moderation, Generosity, Elegance, Benevolence, Industriousness, Patience, Honesty, Wittiness, Friendliness, Modesty, and Righteous Indignation. These were virtues in his community during his time. To help the students understand each virtue, discuss how each one has a corresponding vice that is antithetical to it. The teacher should then explain how the students will pick three or more of the Aristotelian virtues and create a thumbnail “sketch” of each one they choose in their sketchbooks. The thumbnail can be any medium they choose and should fill a space no bigger than 1.5” by 2.5”. Each thumbnail sketch should serve as a visual representation of a virtue, using familiar symbols and images. Each student will need to complete at least three before the end of class. The teacher should share three thumbnail sketches complete prior to class to give the students a clear example of what is expected.  An example can be found here.  Each thumbnail should be simple, like a logo. (25 minutes)

Students will have roughly 50 minutes to work on thumbnail sketches. Allow students to search for and print out reference images from the class computers if they need to. Students will probably need help coming up with ideas. The teacher should be fully present and available to help the students as needed. Consider working with a few students at a time if necessary. As students are working, the teacher should discuss the homework assignment with them. The students will be required to do some investigating before the next class to discover the virtues that are promoted in their home, church, or other small organization (including groups like Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, sports teams, etc.). Students should interview family and friends to help them create a list of at least five virtues that they will bring with them to the next class. Some of the virtues will probably coincide with the Aristotelian virtues. This is okay. They do not all have to be different and probably will not be. Students will be picking one of the virtues from their list to investigate further in the following lessons. (45 minutes)

When there are only five minutes left in class, it is time to clean up – instruct the students to stop working, and place their sketchbooks on one of the tables for grading. Ask the students to help return any supplies they used to their proper locations. (5 minutes)

1. Introduction/Motivation
Class will begin by sharing three works of art from three different art periods that the students have likely never seen. The works of art are all very different but the subject matter of each one is virtue, or virtues, and each one has “virtue” in the title. This similarity should not be lost on the students and should prompt discussion about the virtues. These works of art will also be examined for their symbolic imagery with discussion prompts provided by the teacher.
2. Guided Practice
What visual symbols do you see? What do you think they symbolize? Why do you think that? What are some other virtues that you can think of? Why is this considered a virtue? What is the opposite of this virtue, what is its vice? What symbols can you think of to represent this virtue?
3. Independent Practice
Students will describe the visual symbols they see in the works of art shared in class. Students will observe and attempt to deduce what the artworks are about based off what they see. Students will use pencil, markers, watercolor, acrylic, charcoal, or pastel to create symbolic imagery representing virtues.
4. Closure
When ten minutes are left in class, the teacher should ask the students which virtues they chose, and what symbols they used to represent virtues in their thumbnail sketches. Encourage as many students to share as time will allow.
5. Formative Evaluation
The guided practice questions listed in section 2 above will serve as formative evaluation. If the students are unable to answer these questions, then they will need to be rephrased or simplified in a way that allows the students to demonstrate that learning is taking place. If a student is not clear on what they should be doing, the teacher will sit with them on an individual or small group basis and re-demonstrate the tasks that are required for the day’s lesson.
6. Classroom Management Procedures
Students should be encouraged to raise their hand before speaking. Do not allow students to speak when the teacher is speaking. Encourage questions and answers that contribute to the subject being discussed. Walk around the room while students are working to offer assistance and encouragement. Monitor conversations at the art tables. Do not allow students to use art materials improperly.

Summative Assessment and Evaluation

The thumbnail sketches created during class and the list of virtues that the students bring to the next class will serve as summative assessment. The sketches will demonstrate that the students are able to relate the abstract concept of virtues to concrete visual symbols and that they are able to use these symbols to create art. The list of virtues that the students bring to the next class will demonstrate that they are able to identify virtues that are valued and promoted in their communities today.

References and Resources

PowerPoint presentation on virtues

Aristotle, ., Ross, W. D., & Brown, L. (2009). The Nicomachean ethics. Oxford: Oxford  University Press.

Echaurren, R. M., (1943). Black Virtue [painting]. Retrieved from http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/matta-black-virtue-t01232

Grau, E., (1972). Virtue and Vice: Virtue [mixed media]. Retrieved from http://library.artstor.org/asset/ARTSTOR_103_41822003867213

Mantegna, A., (1502). Minerva Expelling the Vices from the Garden of Virtue [painting]. Retrieved from http://mini-site.louvre.fr/mantegna/acc/xmlen/section_8_0.html


•  117.111 (b)(1)(A) – explore ideas from life experiences about self, peers, family, school, or community and from the imagination as sources for original works of art;
•  117.111 (b)(2)(A) – integrate ideas drawn from life experiences to create original works of art;
•  117.111 (b)(2)(C) – produce drawings; paintings; prints; sculpture, including modeled forms; and other art forms such as ceramics, fiber art, constructions, mixed media, installation art, digital art and media, and photographic imagery using a variety of materials.
•  117.111 (b)(3)(A) – identify simple main ideas expressed in artworks from various times and places;

National Art Standards

•  Anchor Standard #1. Generate and conceptualize artistic ideas and work.
•  Anchor Standard #6. Convey meaning through the presentation of artistic work.
•  Anchor Standard #7. Perceive and analyze artistic work.
•  Anchor Standard #8. Interpret intent and meaning in artistic work.
•  Anchor Standard #10. Synthesize and relate knowledge and personal experiences to make art.