Ancient Art: Formal Analysis Example

Note: The following post is intended to be a resource for my ancient art students. If you know of any good examples of basic formal analysis that are available online, please leave links in the comments section below! I would like to build up a list of resources for my students.

Formal elements are things that are part of the form (or physical properties) of a work of art: medium, line, color, scale, size, composition, etc. Formal analysis involves an exploration of how these formal elements affect you, as a viewer.

Formal analysis involves describing a work of art, but formal analysis goes beyond mere description. Instead, description is used as an agent to support the argument-at-hand. Although your essay will likely introduce a work of art with some general descriptions, the rest of your descriptions should be very pinpointed and with purpose. Make sure that such detailed descriptions are used to back up specific points of your argument. For this formal analysis assignment, your argument will revolve around some type of reaction to the work of art.

Your formal analysis should include some type of thesis statement that revolves around your reaction. To help you think about your own assignment and personal reaction, I have written a short sample of formal analysis below (and have underlined the thesis statement). Please also note that I am not basing my reaction on content (i.e. the subject matter, narrative, or symbolism), nor on historical context. Instead, I am focusing strictly on formal (visual or physical) elements:

Great Lyre sound box, c. 2600-2500 BCE

The front panel of the Great Lyre sound box (shown above) is an example of Sumerian art from the Ancient Near East.The panel is divided into four different registers. These registers contain four scenes with figures (mostly animals) involved in various activities. Despite the rather rigid compartmentalization of the four sound box scenes, the overall effect of the front panel of the Great Lyre sound box is one of energy and dynamism. Such energy can be seen in the color of the figures and in curvy compositional lines.

The sound box is comprised of two different colors, a dark black and a light tan.  These colors are caused by the medium of the panel. Dark black is the color of bitumen, which is used for the background of the panel and lines. Light tan is the color of the inlaid shell that is used for the bodies of the figures and objects. The stark contrast of light tan against a dark background adds a sense of dynamism to the figures. The figures seem to glow and hum with life. Furthermore, these lightly-colored figures are pushed closer toward the viewer, away from the black background, which gives the figures a sense of presence and energy.

Detail of top registers of Great Lyre sound box, c. 2600-2500 BCE

The composition of the figures also lends itself to this idea of energy. The figures fill the whole space of their respective registers and scenes, giving them a strong, energetic presence. In fact, some figures strain and twist so that their bodies can fill and fit within the register space. Such dynamic twisting is especially seen in the two bulls in the upper-most register (see image above). These bulls are symmetrically placed on either side of a central human figure, creating a “Master of the Animals” motif. The bodies of the bulls twist inward toward the human figure, and but their necks and heads twist outward and slightly downward. The theme of curves and energy is underscored in the beards and hair of these three figures: each lock of hair ends with a bouncy curl.

Energy can be seen in the curvaceous lines of other figures as well. In the second register from the top, the backs and tails of the hyena and lion are comprised of swooping lines. In fact, the lines of the lion’s back are reinforced and highlighted by swooping, short lines that suggest the lion’s bushy mane. While the lion’s mane swoops toward the center of the scene, the lion’s lower back curves in the other direction. These opposing compositional lines give the panel an added sense of energy and movement.

Detail of bottom registers of Great Lyre sound box, c. 2600-2500 BCE

In the second register from the bottom, the back of the bear curves upward and downward in a lyrical, dynamic swoop (see image above). In fact, the whole body of the bear is placed at a more dynamic angle, since the bear is leaning toward the lyre placed on the left side of the scene. Some of the strings of the lyre curve upward toward the right, opposite the angle of the bear’s body, to add more opposing movement and dynamism to the overall composition.

The lowest register of the front panel contains some of the most dynamic curves and lines. The most obvious curve is found in the tail of the scorpion man on the left side of the scene. This tail curls and swoops upward, only to end with a stinger that loops downward. The shape and detail lines of the scorpion tail are also energetic. The tail is comprised of several oval shapes of decreasing sizes. These shapes are combined together to creating a visually dynamic, bouncy outline for the tail. Furthermore, the tail is full of energy because of the multiple lines that appear within each oval shape. These lines look a little like a maze or labyrinth; they visually reinforce the idea of movement through their repetition and interlocking layout.

The front panel of the Great Lyre sound box embodies energy in many ways. This energy can be seen not only because of the colors of the panel, but also through several compositional devices and lines. Such visual interest in energy is fitting for this piece, given that this sound box originally hummed with musical vibrations and the energy created by sound.

For further information about formal analysis, you may want to look at the chapter, “Formal Analysis” by Anne d’Alleva. Preview is available online here.


Intro to Architecture: Greek Capitals

Someone requested that I write a few introductory posts on architecture, and I am more than happy to comply! I thought that it would be fun to start with the architectural orders that were popular in ancient Greece. (I thought about waiting to write this post until I reached this same chronological point in my intro/survey posts, but I’m too excited to wait. So, sorry for the anachronism. Just pretend that the architectural posts are separate from the other survey posts.)

The three Greek architectural orders are called Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian. These orders are easily defined by a key characteristics, namely the capitals (decorative heads) at the tops of the columns. There are several other architectural features which define these three orders (and there also are variants within these orders, as you can see in the drawing on the right), but I don’t want to overwhelm anyone. For now, we’ll just focus on the capitals of these basic columns.

As you can see from the pictures above, the Doric capital essentially is split into two simple sections. In contrast, the Ionic capital is decorated with large volute scrolls and the ornate Corinthian capital is decorated with acanthus leaves and scrolls. If you want to see some other examples of these capitals (and some other awesome capitals in general), click here and here.

Throughout history, the Greek architectural style has been adopted and revived by many other cultures. The Romans quickly adopted the Greek architectural style (really, they borrowed tons of their artistic ideas from the Greeks), and the term “Classical style” can refer to either Greek or Roman art. However, Romans put a twist to Greek design by sometimes using a superimposed order on buildings which had more than one story – each of the successive stories are decorated with a different order (this is a deviation from the Greeks, who consistently would use one order throughout a whole building). For example, you can see a superimposed order on the outside of the Colosseum (Rome, 70-80 AD). The Doric order is on the bottom level, the Ionic is on the middle level, and the Corinthian is on the top:

You can also see another drawing of the Colosseum orders here
(Note: the fourth level of the Colosseum also is decorated with Corinthian capitals – but these capitals are atop pilasters instead of columns).

The Greek/Classical style has been revived many other times throughout history. Due to the excavation/discovery of Pompeii in 1748, Europeans became enamored with the Classical style once again – which led to the popular Neoclassical movement. Neoclassical architecture can be seen all over America and Europe. In America, the classical style is often used for civic buildings (which makes sense, because the Founding Fathers took part in this Neoclassical revival – they were influenced by the ideal of the Roman Republic). Here are a couple of Neoclassical examples:

William Wilkins (architect), Downing College, Cambridge (1807-21)

Note the large Ionic columns that decorate the porch

Thomas Jefferson, Monticello, Charlottesville, Virginia (1770-1806)
Jefferson used Doric columns for the porch of his home

Jacques-Germain Soufflot, the Panthéon (Ste.-Geneviève),
Paris, 1755-1792
See the large Corinthian columns?

So, where have you most recently seen some columns with Doric, Ionic, or Corinthian capitals? I most recently saw Corinthian columns on this iron pergola:

Pergola, Historic Pioneer Square, Seattle (first built 1909)


Intro to Ancient Near East: Akkad

It’s been a while since I posted any introductory posts. I thought I’d briefly write about one of my favorite stelae from the ancient Near East period, the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin (shown below, 2254-2218 BC).

The Akkadians were a group of people which took over Sumer in 2334 BC. The Akkadians spoke a Semitic language but used cuneiform (the Sumerian writing system) for their written documents. What I think is most fascinating about the Akkadians is their ideological shift in regards to divine rulers – halfway into the long reign of Naram-Sin (r. 2254-2218 BC), this king decided to heighten his political status by assuming divine status as well.1 There is visual evidence of this ideological shift on the Victory Stele of Naram-Sin, for the king is depicted wearing a horned headdress, a feature which was “formerly the exclusive prerogative of the gods.”2

This pink sandstone stele is my favorite piece of Akkadian art. It is one of the first pieces of art to depict an actual historial event; the stele commemorates Naram-Sin’s victory over the Lullubi people.

Hierarchy of scale is used in this composition, which means that the most important figure (in this case, Naram-Sin), is shown bigger than anyone else. Naram-Sin is walking up the mountainside, with his smaller soldiers marching behind him. If you look closely, you can see that Naram-Sin is treading on top of two fallen Lullubi soldiers.

The thing I like most about this stele are the stars depicted at the top. There are only two stars shown because the top of the stele is damaged, but it is thought that at least three favorable stars shown on the king. I read a footnote here which mentions that once there may have been seven stars on this stele.

I’ve had professors posit different ideas about these stars. Some think that the two depicted stars represent the dieties Shamash (the primary diety for the Akkadians) and Ishtar (the goddess of love, marriage, beauty and war). Therefore, the inclusion of these stars could indicate the gods’ favorable view of Naram-Sin. It also could be that Naram-Sin is walking up the mountainside in order to make a sacrifice to the gods, thanking them for his victory (which further propagandizes that Naram-Sin has divine support). This theme (the relationship between rulers and diety) is familiar in ancient art, which makes me think that this theory has some creedence. But if there were other stars depicted on this stele, which gods did they represent? How can we ensure that the attribution of gods to stars is not arbitrary?

I’ve had another professor who wondered if these stars could represent an actual cosmic event that took place during the battle or victory. I think this is a really interesting thought, though I don’t believe there is any extant evidence to support this idea. It’s kind of fun to think about, though. Since this stele was one of the first pieces of art to depict a historical event, it’s fun to think that historical accuracy extended to a depiction of what the stars looked like.

What do you think about these stars? What’s your favorite part about this stele?

1 Dominique Collon
, et al. “Mesopotamia.” In Grove Art Online. Oxford Art Online,, accessed 7 August 2009.

2 Ibid.


Intro to Ancient Near East: Sumer

The ancient Near East has long fascinated students and historians, particularly because three major world faiths (Islam, Judaism, and Christianity) got their beginnings in this region. Furthermore, this area is of interest because of other early developments which took place here. After the Neolithic Revolution (the change from humans as hunters/gatherers to farmers), the wheel and plow were first used in the ancient Near East.

The first writing system was also developed in the Near East by the Sumerians. Their writing system consisted of wedge-shaped cuneiform signs. The Sumerian book the Epic of Gilgamesh is the oldest book in the world, written over a thousand years before Homer’s Odyssey and Illiad.

My favorite ancient Sumerian art has always been the statuettes from the Square Temple at Eshnunna (ca. 2700 BC; Tell Asmar, Iraq). Many of these statuettes have been found beneath the floor of the temple (click here to see some more examples). Most figures are dressed in the form of priests or priestesses, and they have their hands clasped in constant prayer. It is thought that these statuettes were votive figurines; worshipers would leave these figures at the temple as a form or worship or prayer. Or, it is also thought that these statuettes could represent the manifestation of an answered prayer. I especially love the wide-eyed stares on their faces; they probably symbolize the vigilance of the statuettes in their prayerful duty.

Next to the statuettes, my other favorite Sumerian piece is a bull-headed lyre from the Royal Cemetary at Ur (Tomb 789, “King’s Grave”, ca. 2600 BC). The lyre was decorated with gold and lapis lazuli (a precious blue stone). You can see a color image of the restored instrument here. My favorite parts of the lyre, though, are the inlaid panels on the front of the soundbox located underneath the bull’s beard (shown below). In these four registers, animals walk on their legs and act like humans – they look like scenes that could be found in Aesop’s fables or a Disney movie. Some think that these panels represent stories that would have been told for entertainment. Others think that the creatures might be inhabitants of the land of the dead, with narrative containing a funerary connection.1 I also had a professor who thought that the scenes related to animal imagery from the Epic of Gilgamesh.

Whatever the reason for this piece, I think it’s very fun. I love that animals are holding cups, playing instruments (the donkey actually is playing a bull lyre in the second panel from the bottom), and possibly dancing (I can’t tell if the bear is dancing or helping to steady the lyre). I especially like that the bulls on the top register have human faces – the artist might have done that to help achieve symmetry in the composition.2

If you’re interested, you can read more about the lyre and animal scenes here.

The ancient Near East has a lot of fun and beautiful art. I also love the Standard of Ur, but I think I might need to save that piece for another day – it deserves its own post.

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages, vol. 11 (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth, 2001), 25.

2 Incidentally, this top scene that contains a figure between two beasts is common in ancient art. It is called the “Master of the Animals” motif and is reserved for great heroes, gods, and goddesses. The influence of this Near Eastern motif can be seen in a “Mistress of the Animals” example from the Archaic Greece period, the west pediment of the Temple of Artemis (Corfu, Greece, ca. 600-580 BC).

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Into to Neolithic Art

Unfortunately, it was necessary for me to not think about art for the past ten days or so. To get my art history groove going again, I thought I’d post a little bit about Neolithic art.

In the Near East, the Neolithic period began about 8000 BC, whereas in Europe it began around 4000 BC. There are a couple of different ways to define the Neolithic period. Initially, the Neolithic (“New Stone”) Age was characterized by the development of two types of artifacts: stone polished tools and pottery. However, the Neolithic period is also different from the Mesolithic period in terms of food production; Neolithic peoples produced food (i.e. farming and stock raising) whereas Mesolithic people were food gatherers.

One of the great monuments from the Neolithic period is Stonehenge. Since I have already written a little about Stonehenge here, I want to focus this post on two of the earliest experiments in urban living, the cities Jericho and Çatal Hüyük (Turkey).

Jericho was a flourishing Neolithic city that covered about ten acres in 8000 BC. By about 7500 BC, this town housed about two thousand people and was surrounded by a thick five-foot-wall.1 A large circular stone tower (shown in this photograph to the left) was built into this wall that originally stood twenty-eight feet high. The tower is thirty-three feet in diameter and also houses an inner stairway. Considering the primitive types of stone tools that were used at this time, this tower is a significant achievement. Unfortunately, not enough of this site has been excavated to determine if this tower belonged to a series of towers.2 It will be interesting to learn if this tower is part of a series of towers that surrounded the city.

Çatal Hüyük is a Neolithic town that was located at the base of a volcano, next to a major trading route. The city inhabitants would trade obsidian, a volcanic rock that could be shaped into sharp tools. I think Çatal Hüyük is especially interesting because the city layout and plan do not contain any type of street! Instead, all of the houses adjoin each other. In order to get inside a house, one would climb through an opening on the roof. Interior and exterior ladders and stairs were used to get from one place to another. You can see a restored side view of Çatal Hüyük here.

For me, the most fascinating thing about Çatal Hüyük is a painting that is located in one of the shrines of the city. Radiocarbon dating places this painting around 6150 BC. This painting is probably the world’s first landscape. The rectangular shapes in the foreground probably are houses (shown in aerial perspective), representing the city Çatal Hüyük. The background depicts an erupting volcano, which archaeologists have identified as the mountain Hasan Dağ.3 Because the painting is located in a shrine, it is thought that it contains some kind of religious significance (as opposed to relating a historical event connected to a volcanic eruption). If the painting is ever proven to be connected to a true historical event, the mural will not be considered a true landscape anymore.

There are a lot of other interesting things about the shrines at Çatal Hüyük. The rooms are decorated with bucrania (bovine skulls), which is considered to be a symbol of male fertility. I wonder if in the imagery of the erupting volcano also could be connected to male fertility.4

1 Fred S. Kleiner and Christin J. Mamiya, Gardner’s Art Through the Ages: A Global History, 13 ed. (Cengage Learning EMEA, 2008), 25.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid., 27.

4 I have found a couple of online sources which think that the volcano is related to female fertility and a “Volcano Goddess.” In a relatively recent publication, Carl J. Becker briefly mentioned that the erupting volcano is connected to the female fertility; he described the eruption of volcanic ash as similar to human birth. (See Carl J. Becker, A Modern Theory of Language Evolution, iUniverse, 2004, 241; found online here). However, since in ancient times the imagery of rain was connected with semen and ejaculation, I wonder if volcanic lava could also be a similar reference for this prehistoric mural. I would be interested to know if anyone has any information or more speculation regarding male fertility and this mural.


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This blog focuses on making Western art history accessible and interesting to all types of audiences: art historians, students, and anyone else who is curious about art. Alberti’s Window is maintained by Monica Bowen, an art historian and professor.