Using Paintings in Religious Education
The Agony in the Garden, Giovani Bellini, c1460
The Agony in the Garden, Andrea Mantegna, c1460
(Matthew 26: 36-46; Mark 14:32-42; Luke 22: 39-46)
Background information for teachers (This information will not necessarily be shared with children. These
interpretations are only one viewpoint and children should be given an opportunity to form their own opinions
about the picture)
Both paintings depict the time just before Jesus’ arrest, when he prayed in the garden. (We can see the
soldiers in the background who are coming to arrest Jesus). Bellini and Mantegna were brothers-in-law and
there are similarities between the pictures. It is not certain who copied whom.
The Bellini painting has a peaceful atmosphere. The contours of the rocks are softer than those in
Mantegna’s painting; the clouds are touched with pink and gold and the scene is bathed in even light. These
images may symbolise God’s love, present even at the bleakest times. Bellini has used more than one gospel to
interpret the story. All three gospels mention the ‘cup of suffering’ but only Luke refers to the angel who
strengthened him. Bellini has depicted the angel as a cherub; and the cup as a chalice, suggesting a link with
the Mass. The three disciples sleeping are Peter, James and John (Mark names all three; Matthew refers to
Peter and the two sons of Zebedee).
The landscape, in both Bellini and Mantegna’s pictures, is Italian but in Mantegna’s painting the structure of
the stone is emphasised. The interpretation of the story is harder and darker. He has used a group of
cherubs to indicate the next part of the story. They carry the scourging pillar, cross, spear and sponge on a
cane; perhaps this suggests that Jesus could foretell what was to happen to him. In the minds of the people
at the time these would also have suggested a link with the ‘sacrifice of the Mass’.
There is more information about the painting and the artist available on the National Gallery website.
Depending on their age and ability ensure that the children realise:
o The picture is not historically accurate e.g. the landscape is Italian
o In Luke’s gospel the ‘cup of suffering’ is a metaphor for what Christ was about to experience. Angel in
Hebrew means messenger. The cherub and chalice in Bellini’s picture are the artist’s way of showing
that God is always sustaining us even at the worst moments of out lives.
o The group of cherubs in Mantegna’s painting are not mentioned in any of the gospels and are merely
an artistic device to illustrate the next part of the story.
The painting provides a starting point to stimulate the children’s imagination but discussion and outcomes
should always return to the scripture story.
The picture might be displayed on the interactive board and reflective music played. It is helpful to allow the
children to express their own responses to the picture before any general discussion takes place.
When discussion and practical activities have taken place, it is helpful to create a prayerful atmosphere and
return to the picture so that the children are given an opportunity to reflect quietly on their own insights.
Some possible questions and activities – these suggestions are only intended to be starting points. The year
groups are approximate and questions and activities should be adapted to the needs of the children.
Year 3 and 4 In pairs discuss what they think is happening in Bellini’s picture.
Who do they think the people are? What is happening now? Look carefully at the
figures in the background. What do they think might be about to happen? What
mood do they think Bellini is trying to create? Give reasons. Who do they think
the men are who are sleeping. Read Luke 22: 39-46. How well do they think the
artist has told the story? How has the painting affected their understanding of
the story? Why do they think the artist has drawn an angel holding a chalice? How
do they think the disciples felt when they woke up? How do they think Jesus felt
when he realised that his friends were sleeping? What message do they think the
story has for their own life? Ask the children to write a letter from one of the
disciples in the painting to Mary describing what happened and what they learned
from the experience about Jesus.
Year 5 and 6 In pairs discuss Bellini’s picture.
What do they notice about the painting? What interests them? Look at the
various people and landscape, as well as the main figures. Why do they think Bellini
included these? Read Luke 22: 39 -46. Ask the children to look at the figures of
Jesus and the angel again. Why do they think Bellini painted the angel in this way?
What is it that makes them think that? What do they think happened after this
scene? Why? Ask the children to research another gospel account of the story
(Matthew 26: 36 – 46; Mark 14: 32 – 42). What do they think are the
similarities and differences between Luke’s account and the other gospel? Which
gospel account do they think influenced Bellini the most? Ask the children to
reflect quietly on the painting. What do they think both the painting and Luke’s
account tell us about God’s love and care? What do they tell us about what kind of
person Jesus was? Ask the children to write a diary account from the viewpoint of
one of the disciples, which describes the story, how they felt, what they learned
from the experience.
High ability Year 6 – Ask the children to look at Bellini’s painting with a partner and discuss their
extension activity reactions.
Read Luke 22: 39-46. Consider some of the images in the painting e.g. the angel,
the chalice, the three sleeping disciples, the crowd in the distance, the posture of
Jesus, the details of the landscape and sky. Is there anything that they find
puzzling? Why do they think the artist included these images?
Look at the way Mantegna has painted the scene.
What is the same? What is different? Research two other gospel accounts of
Jesus praying in the garden (Matthew 26: 36 – 46; Mark 14: 32 – 42). What
they think all of these gospel writers were trying to tell us about the story?
Which painter do they think has expressed this most successfully? Give reasons.
Hot seat Luke. Ask him to tell the story of Jesus in the garden, how he thought
the people felt as the events unfolded, to explain why he included an angel in his
account and what he wants us to understand from the story.