Saint Paul Writing His Epistles, c. 1618–1620
Possibly French active in Rome
Oil on canvas
Canvas: 39 1/8 x 52 3/8 in. (99.4 x 133 cm)
Sarah Campbell Blaffer Foundation, Houston

Habits of Mind

  • UNDERSTAND BIAS Understand assumption and various points of view / empathy
  • SYNTHESIZE Analyze and synthesize relationships and information / compare and contrast / understand the micro and macro implications

Shape and Scale

Discussion through works of art encourage how to approach ambiguous and complex ideas, thoughts, and feelings. The MFAH offers a democratic space where students and teachers can develop, practice and articulate these habits of mind. Remember that the quality of the conversation is what is important, not finding the artist’s “answer.” Slow down and take the time to make careful observations. Talk about what you notice, and try to avoid jumping to conclusions and interpretations. Be sure to give enough time for silent looking and thinking.

Curriculum Objectives

  • Solve real-world mathematical problems, exploring many different calculations in one situation
  • Practice solving simple equations based on word problems, including scale factors and rate costs








Understand Bias


Connecting to the Work of Art

In this painting, Saint Paul the Apostle (c. A.D 5-c A.D 67), one of the most influential early Christian missionaries and leaders, is sitting quietly at his desk, writing one of his epistles (letters). He holds a pen ready in his right hand and gazes at a script, pausing in a moment of reflection. This painting is rich with symbols: the rolled scroll, cards, books, and loose scripts that surround him, and the sword, biblically associated with the word of god, at his left.


The softness of this painting lends a sense of intimacy and quiet reflection. The fold of his cloak, his delicately painted scholar’s hands, and the curves of the scroll and the book express a meditative air. The artist paints light realistically, forming a vital part of this composition. Notice how the light falls on his bald head, the table, and the sword. The striking contrast between light and shadow, together with the simplicity of the half-length figure, reveal the artist’s influence by Caravaggio, whose radical paintings depicting strong contrast between light and dark were enormously influential in the early 17th century.


The artist carefully balanced the composition of the painting through the use of the red cloak, adding color and drama in the right side of the painting leaving the left side shrouded in black haze. This is a technique used to draw the viewer’s attention to an object of interest.


In the center of the painting, viewers can see a reflection of a face on the table. At first glance, it seems to be a reflection of Paul or perhaps because the figure is pictured with a crown of thorns, the head of Christ. Look carefully and it becomes clear something is not quite right. The angle of the reflection does not align with the face, nor is the light source correctly placed to be casting such a reflection. It appears that the face was part of a previous composition that the artist painted over. This was a common practice, since canvas was expensive. When an artist deemed a painting unsuccessful, they often painted over the existing image and started anew.


Through X-radiographs, scholars have concluded that there are actually three compositions layered on top of each other on this canvas. The first painting, vertical in orientation, showed an artist at his easel. This figure was painted over with an image of Christ crowned with thorns. The shadowy, upside down image that you see here in the table survived from that second painting.  X-radiographs indicate that the bottom layer of paint shows an artist at his easel, possibly making that earlier version a self-portrait. It is interesting that time, and modern technology, has revealed the artist’s earlier paintings that were never intended to be part of the final version.


  • Where is your attention drawn first? What compositional technique does the artist use to draw the viewer into the scene?
  • What words would you use to describe the tone of the painting? Explain your answer.
  • What do you notice about the objects on the table? Look closely at and describe the various objects. Think about their color, texture, and form—as well as their placement in relation to each other.
  • Describe the light; compare the light on the figure to the background. How does this add to the mood of the painting?
  • Describe the objects on the table. What do you think their relationship to Saint Paul is?
  • Notice what appears to be a reflection of a face on the table. Describe this reflection in relationship to the face of Saint Paul.
  • How would you describe the physical features of the sitter, such as his hands? What words would you use to describe the attitude of the sitter?


  • Notice the simple, tightly cropped composition. How would this be different if we could see the surrounding of the scene?
  • Consider the artist’s choice of color: How does the black background highlight the red gown? Explain how it heightens the sense of drama within the composition.
  • How does the artist create a scene that is both reflective and dramatic? Explain your answer using evidence from the work of art.
  • In the center of the composition, viewers can see a reflection of a face on the table. At first glance, many believe that it is the face of Paul. Look closely at the work. Do you agree? Why or why not?
  • In fact, this work is actually three compositions superimposed on a single canvas. Why do you think an artist would reuse canvases?
  • How does knowing that the face is not part of the intended composition change your interpretation of the work?



The artist who painted this scene repurposed their canvas three times, painting over old compositions to get new life out of old material. This lifetime of adaptation and reuse does not stop at the Museum! Museum workers adapt artworks all the time to fill their needs—positioning them in new exhibitions, fixing old and decaying materials, and adapting them to new media to advertise the Museum and its events. Invite students to use this artwork as an example of real-life calculations and math problems.

If the Museum chose this work of art to be the center of an exhibition, the Public Relations department would need to create a banner advertising this event. Prompt students to work out how the department might re-scale the image to fit on the banner. Guide students to find the dimensions of the painting questions, then ask questions like:

  • Should the banner be smaller or larger than the work of art? By what scale factor?
  • What dimensions should the final banner be printed in?
  • If the banners cost $8.50 per square foot, how much will the entire banner cost?
  • To hang it, the Museum hires three staff members to hang the banner, at a rate of $14.25 each per hour, for 1.5 hours. What is the total labor cost for hanging this banner?
  • What are the combined costs of printing and labor for this banner?

Encourage students to explore other aspects of the production process and write new problems based on this situation. The class may also compare answers to explore how scale factor influences overall cost, or repeat the exercise by “making” a brochure and scaling the painting down.

Subject Matter Connection

Middle school students are very much involved in their own world and are often completely disconnected from the world of others. They are learning to become their own person and sometimes don’t put themselves in another person’s shoes. It is important for them to realize that there are other perspectives in the world and that we cannot always assume that we know the “right way and only way” or any way for that matter.

The Learning Through Art program is endowed by Melvyn and Cyvia Wolff.

The Learning Through Art curriculum website is made possible in part by a grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.

All Learning and Interpretation programs at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, receive endowment income from funds provided by the Louise Jarrett Moran Bequest; Caroline Wiess Law; the William Randolph Hearst Foundation; The National Endowment for the Humanities; the Fondren Foundation; BMC Software, Inc.; the Wallace Foundation; the Neal Myers and Ken Black Children’s Art Fund; the Favrot Fund; and Gifts in honor of Beth Schneider.