The Humanistic Tradition I

From the Ancient World to The Reformation

Reading a Work of Art or Architecture


History is based on the study of primary texts, documents, and images, among other artifacts.  As you study history, one of the most important things you can learn is the process by which historians transform texts, documents, and images into history.  Learning how to read a Work of Art or Architecture is a first step.  In this assignment, you will study a major work of art (painting, sculpture, etc) or architecture together with some secondary material (largely from Fiero, The Humanistic Tradition) to provide a historical context for the text read.  The assignment is designed to help you approach the work of art critically, to figure out what are the right questions to ask about an image, and how to find the answers to those questions.

Assignment: Class Presentation and Written Analysis

You are to select a work of art or architecture (from those covered in Fiero) to study.  When the class reaches the historical period for the work of art or architecture (Classical Athens, Imperial Rome, Medieval Christianity, etc), you will be given class time (about five minutes) to present a summary or your analysis.  Powerpoint is an appropriate tool for the presentation.  Your written analysis should be submitted the class after the presentation.  Please do not read your analysis to the class.  Your analysis should include answers to as many of the following questions as is appropriate for your image.

Key Questions to Ask About a Work of Art or Architecture


1. What is the content/shape of the work of art or architecture?  Describe fully what is depicted (nature, humans, gods, animals, buildings, etc.  What has the artist/architect created?

2. What is the type of the work of art (painting, etc.)?  What media and surfaces are used?  What is the size of the original?  Where was it created?  What is its present location?  Why are these questions important?

3. How does the creator depict and arrange the contents of the work of art?

4. What is the source (the natural world, literature, mythology, religion, etc) of the artist’s inspiration?

5. What is the source of light?  What effect does the nature of the light have on your response to the work of art?

6. What additional or specialized information is needed to read and understand the work of art?  Where might such information be found?


6. Who is the artist?  What is the relationship of the artist to the work of art?

7. What aspects of the artist’s biography and other works are relevant to understanding the work of art?

8. How does the identity of the artist affect the content of the work of art?


9. When and for what purpose was the work of art created (the issue of patronage)?  Who “paid” for it?  Where was it intended to be located?  Was it located there?

10. What sort of mood has the artist created for the audience?  How is this mood created?

11.  What is the relation of the work of art to the “real” world?

12. What literal and greater “meaning” does the work of art have?  What “meaning” does it have for you?

Broad Historical Context

13. What important Historical events were taking place at the time this work of art was created that may have affected its creation?

14. Does the work of art belong to a larger set or series?  If so, how does this knowledge advance our understanding of this particular work?

15. Does the work of art fall into a particular style (Classical Greek, Romanesque, Gothic, etc.)  Describe how the work of art exhibits the characteristics of this style.

Specific Historical Context and Purpose

16. Where and under what specific circumstances was this work of art created?  What did its creator intend it to accomplish?

17. What did this work of art accomplish and how?  Are these different from what the creator intended?  How might this have happened?

18. How and why was this work of art preserved and presented in whatever form you saw it?  Has the work of art been removed from its original location and placed in a museum?  How does the change of location affect the way one views the work?  Has the building been restored?  How did restoration change the building?


19. Conclude with your reflections on what you have learned about how to look at a work of art or architecture.

List of Works of Art and Architecture



Chapter 1

    Palette of King Narmer (The Unification of Egypt)

Chapter 2

    Standard of Ur (The Social Structure of Mesopotamia)
    Nebuchhadnezzar and the Ishtar Gate (The Imperial Architecture of Babylon)

Chapter 4

    Palace of Minos at Knossos

    The Classical Greek Theater and Classical Drama

Chapter 5

    Kritios Boy and Polycleitus, Doryphorous (Classical Style in Sculpture)

    The Acropolis and its Buildings

    Parthenon (Characteristics of Classical Greek Architecture)

    Laocoön and his Sons

Chapter 6

    Trajan’s Column

    Pantheon (Characteristics of Roman Architecture)

Chapter 9

    Saint’Apollinaire nuovo (Early Christian Basilica and Mosaic Decoration)

    Domes and decoration of San Vitale and Hagia Sophia (The Byzantine Style)

Chapter 11

    The Bayeux Tapestry (The Norman Conquest of England, 1066)    

Chapter 13

    The Monastic Style (Fontenay Abbey, France)

    Romanesque Pilgrimage Church (Sainte Foy at Conques, France)

    Gothic Cathedral Style (Chartres Cathedral, France)

    Sienese School of Painting

Chapter 15

    The Black Death and its Effect on the Arts

    The Arena Chapel and the Frescoes of Giotto

Chapter 16

    The Architecture of Filippo Brunelleschi

    The Marriage of the Arnolfini (van Eyck)

    Donatello and Michelangelo, Statues of David

    Perspective and the Art of the Florentine Renaissance

Chapter 17

    The Impact of the Reformation on the Arts

    The Art of Albrecht Dürer

    The Isenheim Altarpiece (Grünewald)

    The Art of Pieter Brueghel the Elder

This Page is Maintained by Robert W. Brown
Last Update:  16.VIII.2006

Return to Robert W. Brown's Home Page

Return to the History Home Page