Formal Elements and Personality

Standard of Ur, Battle (War) side view, 2550-2400 BCE. Image courtesy Smarthistory

It’s the beginning of the school quarter, and I’m interested in knowing what formal elements have an impact on my students. I’m really influenced by the composition of a work of art, and I know that this has to do with my own personality. I’m an organized and neat person, and so I think a lot about the way that things are arranged and ordered (both literally and metaphorically) in my life. As a result, I notice the arrangement of shapes and forms a lot, and I like to consider whether that arrangement is appealing or unappealing to me. I am drawn to the organized composition of the Standard of Ur (The History of Art: A Global View, p. 74), for example, due to how the trapezoidal-shaped object is visually balanced, since it has decoration on both sides of the object: one side has scenes relating to peace and the other has scenes relating to battle. Furthermore, the balance of the object is even more apparent because each side has the same layout with three registers (horizontal bands). These bands are also organized and neat, since each register is about the same size in its length and height. I like how the spacing of the registers is equal on both sides of the object; that visual consistency is appealing to me in its organization.

Some of the repeating figures are evenly spaced from each other, too, such as the soldiers in the central register of the scenes dedicated to battle. Another example of fairly even spacing is seen in the seated people on the top register of the peace scene. All of these compositional features suggest organization and neatness to me, and I personally am drawn to them for that reason.

Standard of Ur, Battle side (top), Peace side (bottom), 2550-2400 BCE

What formal elements are you drawn to? Does it relate to your personality or are you drawn to the formal elements for another reason?

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Art Restitution and Historical Injustices

Elgin_Marbles_British_Museum Wikipedia

This week my students and I have been talking about whether the Parthenon Marbles (sculptures from the Parthenon which are currently in the British Museum, also called the Elgin Marbles) should be returned to Athens. The Greeks perceive the removal of these sculptures in the early 19th century as an ethical injustice to their people, partially since they were removed by the British ambassador Lord Elgin during a period of Ottoman occupation in Greece. The Greeks have already prepared a space to house these sculptures, in the relatively new National Archaeological Museum building in Athens. In fact, activists are noting that next month marks the “black anniversary” of when the Parthenon sculptures arrived in the British Museum 200 years ago (on June 7, 1816). A recent news article explained that the Greeks are noting this historical marker by putting extra pressure on the British to return the sculptures.

I personally can see validity in reasons for why the sculptures should remain in London, as well as reasons for why they should be returned to Athens. These sculptures are part of both British and Greek history, not to mention the constructed Western canon that still exists today.1 My goal in exploring this debate with students is to help them understand how this controversy about ancient art helps to reveal historical and current values regarding art and culture.

As my students and I have been talking about the mounting pressure to return these sculptures to Greece, I have been thinking about how the act of restitution and repatriation is becoming a common practice. In fact, there has been more discussion of restitution and repatriation in the past few decades, especially for the Parthenon Marbles, than there have been since the 19th or early 20th centuries.

I think that there are several reasons for why art restitution is so popular and upheld today, but I personally think that there is one historical reason which has served as an major impetus in the past several decades. I asked my students what they thought might be this impetus for restitution, and I also asked why they think that today we are culturally uncomfortable with the idea of imperialism or a country/group/individual asserting power over another. Our discussion went something like this:

Student 1: We care about restitution and righting wrongs today because of the feminist movement of the 1960s.

Me: I think that helped to open up the door for it, especially in recognizing minorities and women.  But I think we can go even further back in time. What else happened in the 20th century which contributed to our current interest about restitution?

Student 2: Well, as students, our generation cares about social justice today. We are trying to be sensitive to the needs of minorities and underrepresented groups of all kinds, including those of different sexual orientations and religious minorities.

Me: Social justice is valued today. But why is that the case? Why do we care about social justice now instead of a century ago?

Student 3: Maybe the Civil Rights Act led us to care about social justice?

Me: I think the Civil Rights Act is part of it. But what else happened in the 20th century to draw awareness to social injustice? What previous events were perceived as unjust?

Student 4: World War Two and the Holocaust! In another one of my classes we have been talking about the long-lasting and devastating effects of this war.

Me: Yes! This is what I think too! I think that today we are uncomfortable with imperialism and nationalistic conquest because of what Hitler and the Nazi party did, especially because the Nazis are responsible for the horrific mass killings of the Jewish people during the Holocaust. World War Two haunts the collective memory of our culture today, and for good reason. I think that World War Two will continue to shape and inform the way that we approach social justice, art and restitution for the rest of our lifetimes. All of these events that you have mentioned, like the Civil Rights Act and the feminist movement, have happened in the aftermath of World War II. And consider, for example, the stories that have appeared in the news of paintings and objects that have been returned to Jewish families after they initially were stolen by the Nazis during the World War Two era. Perhaps some of you have seen the Woman in Gold movie that was released last year, which followed the restitution of a Klimt painting to a Jewish family. This is just one example of restitution art; there are many more examples of restitution have occurred and many lost objects which still need to be found and returned.

Being influenced by such cultural memory of the Holocaust and Nazi party isn’t a bad thing at all – but it is good to realize that what we are experiencing is a cultural mindset (even a perhaps a trend, if you will). If the Parthenon Marbles do go back to Athens, we should realize that we will be making a statement about our own current values and cultural memory through the sheer act of restitution. And I hope, for that reason, that if the Parthenon Marbles ever do go back to Athens, that copies will be placed in the British Museum so that we can continue to have a dialog about changing cultural values and why these statues have traveled across Europe over the centuries.

1 For an excellent article on how the Parthenon marbles have influenced British culture and the Western canon, see Colin Cunningham, “The Parthenon Marbles,” in Academies, Museums and Canons of Art (Yale University Press, 1999, 43-83). Limited preview available online HERE.


Recurring Themes from 2012-2013 Courses

Today, while organizing my desk, I discovered a scrap of paper. At the end of this past academic year in June, after teaching a very full load of ten courses for the whole year (not counting my other responsibilities as an internship advisor!), I sat down and thought about some of the themes which overlapped between my different art history classes. I didn’t consciously plan to have integrated themes; these themes and ideas often organically developed and revealed themselves as the courses progressed. I’m going to transcribe the original note here, so I can remember (and add to) this list of themes. I think these themes are indicative of me and some of my own interests in relation to my discipline, but perhaps they also reveal something about human nature and recurring themes throughout history in a sort of Hegelian way.

Isidorus of Miletus and Anthemius of Tralles, dome of Hagia Sophia, 532-537. Istanbul. Photo belongs to author


  • The mystical dome of Hagia Sophia, in which the dome hovers on a “golden chain” of light (to quote the ancient historian Procopius)
  • Abbot Suger and Gothic cathedrals, wherein light embodies the presence of God (in a Pseudo-Dionysius the Aeropagite way)
  • Baroque tenebrism
  • Impressionist studies of light and color



  • Ancient snakes and their associations with power and rejuvenation
  • Etruscan demons in tomb wall paintings
  • Eve and her associations with the snake and temptation, due to the account of the Garden of Eden
  • Medieval personifications of female vices which were depicted with snakes or with snake-like imagery
  • More associations with snakes a previous post

    Augustus of Prima Porta, 1st century CE. Image courtesy Till Niermann via Wikipedia


  • Looting and defacement of images in the ancient Near East as propagandistic messages of conquest
  • Roman imperial portraits as forms of political propaganda (typified in the Augustus of Prima Porta statue), which often connects rulers with the gods
  • The Justinian mosaics at San Vitale as an example of political propaganda (including the visual connections between the depiction of Justinian on the sanctuary wall and the mosaic of Christ in the apse ceiling).
  • Art used as propaganda for the Catholic Counter-Reformation in the late 16th and 17th centuries
  • Picasso’s Guernica as propaganda to expose and decry the inhumanity caused by the aerial bombing of Guernica on April 26,1937. The bombing performed by General Franco’s German and Italian allies.



  • Athena, as a goddess who chose to remain a virgin. Other Roman goddess-virgins include Diana, Minerva, and Vesta
  • The Virgin Mary

    Edgar Degas, "Place de la Concorde," 1875. Image courtesy Wikipedia


  • The Impressionists as escapists who avoided including direct references to the recent, bloody Commune and Franco-Prussian wars in their paintings. The figure of Baron Lepic, on the right side of Degas’s painting Place de la Concorde (above) conceals an allegorical figure of Alsace. At the time, the figure was draped in black allude to the recent cession of the area to the Germans.
  • Primitivists as escapists from the modern “civilized world,” particularly seen in the art and biography of Gauguin
  • Dada humor can be interpreted as a form of escapism, in order for artists and viewers to find solace from the horrors of World War I.

Vermeer, "Woman in Blue Reading a Letter," c. 1663-64. Photo belongs to the author


  • Ancient Greeks depicted in the Panathenaic Festival on the Ionic frieze of the Parthenon
  • Examples of veristic portraits from the Roman Republican period
  • Dutch Baroque genre scenes (as seen in the painting by Vermeer, above)
  • The Realist paintings of Courbet and other later 19th century paintings which capture la vie moderne (a nod to Baudelaire’s essay, “Le Peintre de la Vie Moderne”)

Do you notice any other works of art that could relate to these thematic categories? What are some of the recurring themes which pop up in your various art history courses?


Guest Post: Teaching Art History with Blogs

Today I have a guest post featured on the new blog Experiments in Art History. I worked with Nancy Ross, the owner of this blog, to produce the “Art History Flashbook” at CAA’s THATCamp last month.

I think Nancy’s new blog will be a great way to approach issues regarding technology and art history teaching. For those of you who are interested in thinking about blogging from a pedagogical standpoint, please check out my post!


Snakes in Ancient Art Hiss-tory

Each of my classes this quarter has its own distinct personality. My ancient art students are especially curious, and I love the questions that they raise in class. And for some reason, a lot of our recent topics have meandered (or perhaps slithered?) toward a discussion of snakes. I suppose this shouldn’t be surprising, since snakes held symbolic significance in a lot of ancient cultures. Here are some of the works that we have been discussing at length (and some topics that we’ll be discussing in the next few weeks):

I can’t even express how much I love the Minoan Snake Goddess (shown left, c. 1700-1550 BCE, image courtesy Flickr via Xosé Castro). This was one of the first statues that I loved as an AP art history student in high school. A few weeks ago, my students and I discussed how the snake could have held multiple symbolic associations for the Minoans. Snakes are associated with rejuvenation in many ancient Mediterranean cultures, since snakes can rejuvenate themselves by shedding their skin. Snakes are also associated with resurrection, since they can move both above and beneath the ground.

Last week, when discussing Hellenistic art, a student asked why Alkyoneos (depicted in part of the Gigantomachy frieze at the Altar of Zeus, Pergamon, c. 175-150 BCE) was entwined with a snake. (We were also looking at another Hellenistic sculpture, the Laocoön (1st century BC), and the student noticed a visual similarity between the writhing snakes.) I had never paid attention to the Alkyoneos snake before, but discovered that the snake helps the viewer to identify that Alkyoneos is battling with the Olympian goddess Athena. The snake aids Athena in her victory, similar to how serpents aid the Olympian gods (specifically Athena, according to some accounts) in the killing of Laocoön, the Trojan priest.

Athena was often identified with snakes (I joked with my students that she might have been a Parselmouth). Not only was the snake associated with wisdom (which was one of Athena’s attributes), but snake also served as the symbol for Erectheus, the mythical king of Athens. As the patron goddess of Athens, it makes sense that Athena would also be associated Erectheus (and Athens) through the snake symbol. Athena was depicted with a snake in the monumental “Athena Parthenos” statue by Phidias (original dated 438 BC, see reconstruction from Royal Ontario Museum here).

In about a week, I’ll be talking about snakes with my ancient art students again, this time in connection with the Etruscans. Scholar Kristen Lee Hostetler recently explored how snake imagery is found in depictions of Etruscan demons (such as the wall painting of the demon Tuchulcha, Tomba dell’Orco II, Tarquinia, last quarter of the 4th century BC; shown left). It appears that snakes (specifically the extremely poisonous adder) were feared by the Etruscans. Hostetler points out that the distinct adder markings are noticeable in the demon imagery1. In addition, some of these Etruscan demons have blue flesh (as seen in the “Tomb of the Blue Demons” in Tarquinia, late 5th – early 4th century BC), which is reminiscent to the skin discoloration caused by an adder snakebite.2

Earlier in the quarter, my students and I have discussed the significance of the enraged uraeus snake in Egyptian pharaonic imagery (as can be seen in the funerary mask of King Tutankhamun, c. 1327 BCE). The snake is a reference to the Wadjet, the cobra goddess of Lower Egypt. According to mythology, the pharaoh sat at coronation to receive his crown from this goddess.3 The cobra was one of the earliest of Egyptian royal insignia.

Do you have a favorite work of art which includes snake imagery? It’s interesting that snakes have obviously fascinated (and intimidated) the human race for so many centuries. I can think of many other examples, even extending outside the realm of ancient art. Biblical images of Eve with snakes have been popular in Christian art for centuries. Snakes can also appear in conjunction with the Virgin; my favorite Baroque example is Caravaggio’s Madonna with the Serpent (1606 CE).

1 Kristin Lee Hostetler, “Serpent Iconography,” in Etruscan Studies 10, no. 16 (2007): 203.

2 Ibid., 206.

3 Nancy Luomala, “Matrilineal Reinterpretation of some Egyptian Sacred Cows,” in Feminism and Art History: Questioning the Litany by Norma Broude and Mary D. Garrard, eds. (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 1982), 27.


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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.