An angel's just appeared and Mary looks kind of worried: Children's interpretations of Christian artworks


Toohey, Joanne. (2016). An angel's just appeared and Mary looks kind of worried: Children's interpretations of Christian artworks [Thesis].
AuthorsToohey, Joanne
Qualification nameMaster of Education (Research) (MEd(Res))

Encounters with Christian visual artworks offer viewers opportunities to articulate religious understanding through interpreting representations of Christian scripture, beliefs and practice (Jensen, 2011; Ledbetter, 2001; McCarthy, 2010). To date, however, visual artworks are a largely unexplored resource in Australian Catholic primary school Religious Education, with research into children’s interpretation of visual art being primarily limited to aesthetic dimensions of understanding. This thesis, which arises from experience as a Catholic primary school educator, takes an interdisciplinary approach to exploring children’s interpretations of Christian artworks. It seeks to develop a more diverse knowledge of children’s understanding of Christian artworks. The study responds to two current concerns within the Australian Catholic education sector. One issue is the need to enhance students’ visual interpretation skills in response to the increasing role of images in society (Australian Curriculum, Assessment and Reporting Authority, 2013). The other concern is the need for effective strategies and resources to address falling levels of student religious literacy (Bishops of NSW and the ACT, 2007). The study investigates 13 children’s interpretations of a range of artworks depicting the biblical narrative of the Annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26-38). The study is set in a Catholic primary school with participants ranging from six to eleven years of age. The Interpretivist framing of the study takes into account the particular religious perspective of the Catholic school setting, and the individual nature of children’s interpretations of visual artworks. The findings of the study show that children make sense of visual artworks through a range of cognitive, affective and sensory interactions. Their interpretations chiefly focus on the intelligibility of an artwork’s subject matter, where they generally endeavour to integrate pictorial elements into a cohesive narrative to explain an artwork. In addition, children often spontaneously embodied the emotions and interactions between figures depicted in artworks as part of their interpretations. The findings bring to light a fruitful correspondence between children’s characteristic aesthetic attention to an artwork’s subject matter, and the symbolism or iconography of Christian artworks. As children encounter Christian artworks they draw on traditional iconographic features such as symbolic colours, gestures, poses and settings that imbue these works with layers of meaning (Apostolos-Cappadona, 1995; Brown, 2008; McCarthy, 2011; Ratzinger, 2005). The participants’ engagement with various aspects of Christian iconography throughout their interpretations of these artworks provides valuable insight into children’s understanding of Christian scripture, beliefs and traditions. The study raises implications for the use of Christian artworks in primary school settings. These works are shown to be meaningful and developmentally appropriate resources for children, which support holistic and challenging learning. Encounters with Christian artworks offer effective interdisciplinary learning opportunities including the support of multimodal literacy, visual arts appreciation skills, and knowledge about Christian scriptures, teachings and traditions. Overall, the findings of this study provide valuable background for Catholic educators and offer several areas for further inquiry.

PublisherAustralian Catholic University
Digital Object Identifier (DOI)
Research GroupSchool of Education
Final version
Publication dates23 Aug 2016
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