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Grade Level: 5–6
Students will be introduced to the Greco-Roman myth of Phaeton and how he created the Milky Way galaxy by critically analyzing The Fall of Phaeton by Rubens. They will then create their own constellation to be displayed in a classroom galaxy.
Sir Peter Paul Rubens
The Fall of Phaeton, c. 1604/1605, probably reworked c. 1606/1608
oil on canvas, 98.4 x 131.2 cm (38 3/4 x 51 5/8 in.)
National Gallery of Art, Patrons' Permanent Fund
What do you think is happening in this painting? Why do you think it’s happening in the night sky?
Helios, the sun god, drove a four-horse chariot across the sky each day, giving the earth its hours and seasons. He rose from a palace in the east and flew to another in the west. Each night, with his team and chariot, he boarded a golden ferry to sail home.
Helios had a mortal son named Phaeton. When the boy was taunted for claiming the god as his father, Phaeton asked Helios for proof of his parentage. In response, Helios promised Phaeton anything he wanted. Phaeton's request was to drive his father’s chariot. Although Helios realized that the boy lacked the strength and skill to control the horses, the promise had been made. With dread, Helios handed over the reins.
When Phaeton set out, the horses veered, first heavenward, cutting the swath of the Milky Way, then fell to earth. Winged figures representing the hours and seasons, gesture in horror as the pattern of night and day is disrupted. The blazing chariot scorched the earth creating deserts. The earth’s very future was threatened. Zeus, the king of the gods, was called to intervene. He hurled a thunderbolt at the chariot, sending it in a fiery plunge to earth. The nymphs who recovered Phaeton’s body were so bereft that they became trees and wept over him. Their tears became amber, the fossilized resin of trees.
Peter Paul Rubens was the most sought-after painter in northern Europe during the early seventeenth century. His rich colors, energetic brushwork, and lively compositions epitomize the exuberance of baroque art. Dominated by restless motion, his dynamic and emotional style is created through strong contrasts of color and light. The son of a lawyer, Rubens was a noted linguist and scholar, well schooled in ancient history and classical languages. He served the courts of Europe not only as a painter, but also as a diplomat, sometimes carrying out delicate negotiations while working on foreign commissions.
Rubens painted The Fall of Phaeton while he was studying in Italy from 1600 to 1608. He sketched a famous battle scene painted by Leonardo da Vinci and used some of the horses in it as models for his own painting.
According to this myth, Phaeton’s erroneous ways created a new galaxy—the one we live in—the Milky Way. There are 88 recognized constellations within our galaxy. Do you think Phaeton could have spurred on more constellations yet to be discovered?
Once all students have created their individual constellation, they will then assemble a class galaxy. Working together, students will affix their constellations to a blank wall or bulletin board. They should step back often to see how the stars come together into a unified galaxy, moving the individual constellations to create a cohesive universe. Some constellations might even want to share stars. Then, students will hypothesize what person or animal their fellow student astronomers depicted.
VA:Cr2.3.5 Identify, describe, and visually document places and/or objects of personal significance.
VA:Re7.1.5 Compare one's own interpretation of a work of art with the interpretation of others.
VA:Re7.2.5 Identify and analyze cultural associations suggested by visual imagery.
VA:Re8.1.5 Interpret art by analyzing characteristics of form and structure, contextual information, subject matter, visual elements, and use of media to identify ideas and mood conveyed.
Explore other teaching materials on the Milky Way at CK-12 Foundation
Visit Astroviewer to see the current night sky above some international cities
Test your knowledge of gods and goddesses by playing the matching game "Ancient Arcade"
Download a family-oriented guide to Rubens
Borrow the teaching packet Art&
Download or borrow the teaching packet Classical Mythology in European Art