Habits of Mind

  • Observe Details

Reliving the Renaissance

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

•  Research the life of Leonardo da Vinci and his accomplishments as a scientist.

•  Record observations using words and drawings.

•  Keep a notebook of sketches to document a science project.




•  Research the life of Leonardo da Vinci and his accomplishments as a scientist.  Find examples of his drawings of people, animals, and nature.  Discuss records of his ideas and observations.

•  Discuss why it is important for scientists and artists to record observations and experiment with new ideas.

•  Select a science lesson or experiment in which students can develop observation skills.  Have each student keep a notebook of sketches and words to document the project.

•  Compare the sketched observations with the written notes.  What are the advantages of each?

The desire to rework ideas and the openness to a range of solutions are all part of the investigative scientific experience. Scientific investigations and reasoning are used to develop a rich knowledge of science and the natural world. Students must become familiar with different modes of scientific inquiry, rules of evidence, ways of formulating questions, ways of proposing explanations, and the diverse ways scientists study the natural world and propose explanations based on evidence derived from their work.

  • An artist that was very concerned with realistic depictions of nature was Leonardo de Vinci. If possible, display some of his sketches and compare his style to the works of art.
  • Moving your eye from the bottom to the top of the frame, look closely to generate a list of all you see.

  • Further qualify the observations on your list by adding words describing the specific details of the objects, people, nature, animals, etc.

  • Compare areas of the painting that include more details with areas that have less details. How does the artist depict color and size in those same areas? What differences do you observe? Give examples from the work of art in your explanation.

  • How has the artist used muted colors, reduced size, and diminished details to affect the spatial composition of this scene? Would you agree this work of art provides a good example of three-dimensional space through the use of atmospheric perspective? Explain.

  • Divide the visual plane into foreground, middle ground, and background. Predict the possible distances between them. Compare to views outside the windows of the school.

  • How does the artist use overlapping to suggest depth? Give evidence from the work of art.

  • Overlapping is used to show the young woman in red falling in front of the boat.What other areas show this woman? Why might she be repeated?

  • Moving your eye from right to left, how might this painting compare to a story map?

  • Paintings like this were often incorporated into the paneling of a room or a chest. How is that reflected in the choice of media and its size? Imagine what else might be in a room with this.

  • This work of art tells the story of a mythological narrative based on the young woman in red, referred to as the “beloved of Enalus”. She is aided by Greek mythological characters such as Poseidon, Aphrodite, and Eros. Research this story from Greek mythology and locate areas of the painting that correlate with parts of the myth.

  • Would you make any changes to this painting in order to portray the myth?If so, how would you change it? Why?

  • One of the most famous writers in history, Dante Alighieri, believed that three was a divine number. When you start looking closely, you’ll discover that The Rule of 3 comes up a lot in storytelling, from fairytales to movies: The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, The Three Musketeers, etc. How has this artist used “the rule of 3” in this painting?

  • Brainstorm possible titles for this work of art. At one time, this work of art was entitled “Mytholigical Narrative”. However, upon further research into the myth it depicts, curators renamed it “The Beloved of Enalus Sacrificed to Poseidon and Spared”. Critique each title in reference to what you know about the work of art. Which title would you choose? Why?

  • To create the surface of this painting, the artist, Bernardino Fungai, sealed the wood with gesso, and then combined vegetable or mineral pigments with egg yolk to create egg tempera paint. Investigate scientifically and explain how this process helps to preserve the color.

  • This was painted during the “Renaissance”, which means “rebirth”;

Pronounce the artist’s name:  Foon-guy’


Subject:  The story depicted in this painting recounts a little known story from Greek mythology. A group of colonists, bound for the island of Lesbos, are instructed by an oracle to drop one of their daughters into the sea as an offering to Poseidon, Greek god of the sea.  At the far right, a young woman in red, the beloved of Enalus, is forced from the boat; in the center, she swims through the water aided by dolphins; and at the far left, she is greeted and pulled ashore by a group of women. In the background is a wooded landscape depicting women, farmers and fishermen, a mounted knight, and two monk-like figures reading books at the mouth of a cave. Poseidon is shown with his trident in the center of the painting, and the figures of Aphrodite, the goddess of love, and Eros, her son, at the far left, allude to a classical source.


Style:  This painting reveals the Renaissance interests in careful observation of nature and in creating a convincing three-dimensional space through the use of perspective.  Fungai filled this work with exquisite details of the boats, the animals, and the countryside. The artist suggests deep space through atmospheric perspective. Objects in the foreground are large, detailed, and painted in naturalistic colors. To suggest depth, the artist painted the distant hills and ships as small in size, muted in tone, and lacking detail.  The repetition of the young maiden in red establishes the three episodes and moves the story across the painted surface.


Technique:  To create this painting, Fungai sealed a wooden panel with a layer of gesso, a gypsum and glue paste combination. After sanding the surface smoothly, he then applied the paint.  In fifteenth-century Italy the prevalent painting medium was egg tempera. Vegetable or mineral pigments were ground to a fine powder, mixed with water to make a wet paste, then combined with egg yolk and water. The yellow of the yolk had no impact on the paint’s color. Egg tempera dries quickly, resulting in areas of flat color with sharp edges. It is a very durable and chemically stable medium that over time changes little in color.


Context:  In the history of European art, the Renaissance is generally dated 1400-1550.  The word “renaissance” means “rebirth” and refers to the renewed interest in the art, culture, literature, and science of ancient Greece and Rome that characterized the period.  Scholars and artists of the Renaissance viewed themselves as the cultural heirs of the great writers, artists, and political and military leaders of antiquity.  Classical art provided a great many styles and approaches for the Renaissance artist to study.


This painting of a mythological story was probably displayed in a home.  Although the story has not been identified, it is one that teaches a lesson in virtue.  Such stories were popular in the Renaissance and were intended to serve as models for the people who viewed them.  Paintings like this one were either incorporated into the paneling of a room or into a chest, called a cassone.


Curators are always researching the museum’s collection.  In the process, titles of works of art can change.  This work used to be called Mythological Narrative, a generic term.  Curatorial research identified the myth depicted here, so the work was retitled.

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