At 150 Terms and Concepts

This is your base "toolkit" for art history. It is a mixture of labels and ideas, which can be broken down into architectural terms, analytical terms, period/style terms, concepts, and jargon. Rather than list them all alphabetically, I have put them in related groups. If you learn one group at a time, then you will have the vocab and/or explanation for a complete set of ideas, and you will almost certainly find it easier to remember them.

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There are two main aspects to an image

You need to take BOTH into account. The orchestration of these elements - their harmony, conflict, and blending are all part of the meaning of the work.


These allow us to classify images and buildings by period and appearance. So they are very useful! Find out their date spans, and also list a few ways to recognise each.


You can treat art as concerned with different kinds of "truth"


Classicism is a whole system of thought which came together gradually over the centuries. By the time of the Renaissance it was a coherent way of making sense of the universe. Classicism in art and architecture is only one aspect of the system as a whol e, which included philosophy, natural science, astronomy, language, math and politics. The important thing to remember for our purposes is that the starting point and glue for the whole system was the belief that two truths MUST support each other and CA NNOT conflict. Therefore, if anyone disproved ANY aspect of that system, the whole thing had to fall. That is why heresy (religious or scholarly) was such a heinous crime. Classicism explains the universe. You DON'T destroy that!

Classicism and Christianity

Throughout the Middle Ages and Renaissance, Classicism and Christianity were seen as complementary aspects of divine truth. Therefore, every attempt was made to demonstrate this. The Classical system of beauty was adopted for Christian use; Ideal ization likewise; Classical figures were transferred or adapted for Christian purposes. Thus Nikes (Messengers of Victory) became angels, the Earth goddess became Charity, River gods appeared in scenes of Christ's baptism. Only with the Council of Trent in the middle of the sixteenth century, did the Church formally distance itself from the Classical tradition and start to denigrate it with the term "Paganism". This term is unacceptable to art historians because it buys into that obsolete propaganda. Stick with "Classicism".

Classical Beauty

This is a system by which it was thought we could be certain of recognising beauty when we saw it. It is quite separate from personal taste, and may even conflict with it. Beauty is important because this is how people have traditionally tried to approach the divine and improve themselves or their souls. It was believed that the image of whatever the eye saw would pass through the retina and literally lodge in the soul, where it would ennoble or demean you. It was also believed that beauty manifested God (i.e. produced him out of thin air, like a rabbit out of a hat). Obviously, then, it was vitally important to know what beauty looked like, and to make sure there was plenty of it around - particularly in religious sanctuaries. The system was initiated in the Classical Greek period, completed when Christianity was legalised in the 4th century, and continued in vigorous use until the end of the Baroque period. This is how you recognise Classical Beauty:

It has three properties:

  1. Geometry, or proportions that can be expressed in whole numbers
  2. Bright color, or lots of light
  3. Smooth finish, and/or perfect condition (undamaged)
The system works particularly well for architecture, but it can also be applied to images, and there is a special application of it:


This is a way of showing a person as near as possible to the original, perfect, divine design. The ideal is more than merely good. It is the best, and there can be only one best. Therefore, if people were perfect they would all look the same. The fact that we are all different was considered proof that we are not perfect. The Ancient Greeks used Idealization to give particular messages about a figure:

  1. That he or she was in some way ideal or perfect (e.g. victorious athletes, war heroes)
  2. That he or she was favored by the gods (e.g. victorious athletes)
  3. That he or she was in some way divine (e.g. gods, goddesses)
Note that with the introduction of Christianity, this system was adjusted to give Christianized messages about a figure:

  1. That he or she was in some way ideal or perfect (e.g. Christ, the Virgin, saints, angels)
  2. That he or she was in a state of Grace (e.g. David before his fight with Goliath)
  3. That he or she was divine (e.g. Christ)
Signals include:
  1. Nudity, or near nudity
  2. Contrapposto stance
  3. Face and body at rest
  4. Geometric qualities to face and body
  5. Smooth skin and few details (no wrinkles, veins etc)

Here is an example.

Greek and Roman Architectural Systems

Check out the Architectural Terms section and remind yourself of the necessary vocab. Remember that the Greeks used a post and lintel system consisting of columns supporting a flat entablature. This is very restricted: the widest safe span for un supported stone is eight (8) feet (wood can span a great deal more, which is why we use it for roofs and floorboards). Remember also that the Romans used arches on piers. This is liberating: there is no limit to the space that can b e spanned by a stone arch. So Roman buildings could be enormous.

The Romans adopted the Greek structural vocabulary of columns, architraves and pediments as decoration. You can tell Roman architecture by its enormous size and its arches and curves decorated with half-column s and pilasters. The Romans took liberties with the style, but there were rules:

  1. solid over solid
  2. solid behind solid
  3. void over void
  4. void behind void
  5. one Order per level
  6. the whole must have an apparent structural logic

This blend of the two systems was thought to be universal. That means, they thought there was nothing it couldn't handle. This combined, universal system was the one taken up by later ages.

Classicism and Greatness

One of the most important concepts of Classicism was "greatness". Classicism is a hierarchical system with the Creator (Classical) or God (Christian) at the top. Of course greatness mattered! This is how it was commonly recognized:

  1. innovation (something new that got copied)
  2. achievement (superb skill)
  3. exhaustion (such perfection that further development is deemed impossible)

Notice what these criteria do to Classicism: they force a continual development and ultimate destruction of the system.

Alberti and Classical Beauty

Remind yourself of the components of
Classical Beauty. Remember what it was supposed to be able to do, and therefore why it was so important. Remind yourself of the rules of the combined, universal system of Classical architecture. That is your context for Alberti.

Alberti was an Early Renaissance architect who wrote a treatise on architecture which was used by all practicing architects. In this treatise, he developed the criteria for Classical Beauty in this way:

  1. He demanded that it be structural, not merely decorative
  2. He demanded that it be expressed through authentic Classical architectural motifs and grammar

In this way he set a vitally important, and apparently impossible puzzle for all architects. The façade of a church now had to reflect its interior structure in Classical architectural language. But a traditional church is not a Classical design. It has lean-to aisle roofs and there is no Classical architectural motif for this. Again, remind yourself: what is the function of Classical Beauty? What happens if the church is not beautiful?

Reminder: most texts get this wrong. On Sta Maria Novella, Florence, Alberti used volutes to cover the aisle roofs. Volutes are decorative curves. They have no architectural function. Notice that Alberti's volutes are S shaped, and are the same size at both ends.

The solution by Giacomo della Porta, on Il Gesú, Rome, was to use colossal corbels over the aisles. The corbel has a structural function. It supports projecting weights. It differs from the volute by being larger at the lower end. Il Gesú is vaulted, and vaults put an enormous strain on a building. Della Porta's colossal corbels repeat all the way along the clearstory to counteract the outward thrust of the vault (i.e. they support weight). In this way, the corbels retain their function in a creative new way, the façade reflects the structure of the church behind it, and the problem is solved. This design was used for centuries afterwards.

Here is a window showing both churches together.

Note: the problem of the façade and its ultimate solution demonstrates all three stages of Classical greatness. Alberti innovated by setting the challenge that succeeding architects tried to solve, and della Porta demonstrated achievement by solvi ng the problem in such a way that succeeding architects copied it. He also exhausted the issue, and this is shown by the fact that succeeding architects either copied his solution, or ignored the problem altogether.

Bramante and the Classical Canon

Bramante's approach to architecture was different again. Rather than accepting Alberti's challenge, he set himself several of his own, and in every case he proved that the Classical Canon had limitations, i.e. it was not universal after all. Remember, Classicism assumes that all truths support each other. If one truth falls, the whole system falls. That is the importance of Bramante. Here is what he did:

  1. He designed The Tempietto on a tiny, radiating plan. The demand for solid behind solid simply could not be met on the tiny interior - there wasn't enough room for all the pilasters. His cloister for the Tempietto was never built. It couldn't be. The distance between the outer circle of columns would have been greater than eight feet, and therefore their (flat) entablature could not be supported.

  2. He designed St Peter's with an emphasis on the beauty of the (geometric) space. In fact, the space was SO big and SO geometric that there wasn't enough room for the piers under the dome to be large enough, and therefore they could not counteract its outward thrust. The church could not be built as designed, although the Idea was arguably perfect!

  3. He designed the Cortile Staircase on a spiral. Each level had a different Order, as the rules required. But the ascending spiral had a single continuous entablature, so the Orders appeared side by side after all.

    The Exhaustion and Destruction of Classicism

    Between them, Alberti and Bramante proved that the Classical system of architecture was not universal after all. That being so, the whole Classical system was flawed. The abandonment of the system, firstly by the Church (at the Council of Trent), and later by artists and architects, was inevitable after this. Time to explore new issues in life and art!


    This is a term I have coined to give a label to a new approach to the spiritual which began to replace Classicism after its exhaustion by High Renaissance artists and architects. Where Classicism gives primacy to the intellect, sensualism gives primacy to the senses. That is, it emphasises both sensual perception and emotion as valid routes to the divine. Notice, in English, we use the same word "feelings" to describe sensual perception and emotion. This is not an accident. It is a clear indication t hat we conceive the senses and the emotions as inextricably linked, and essentially equivalent.

    This is a major change in social consciousness. Classicism suggests that the intellect is reliable, where the senses and their perceptions are demonstrably flawed, and emotions are demonstrably changeable. For example, a color-blind person cannot see co lor accurately, and a person who is in love one day may have gone right off their lover the next. Sensualists (my word for people who trust the senses more than the intellect) tend to see our perceptions as measurable, provable, tangible, and therefore m ore reliable than the elusive intricacies of the intellect; and they tend to see the emotions as stronger motivators than the intellect, especially associating them with spiritual sincerity such as repentance, faith, hope, love. It is no accident, either , that from the Mannerist period onwards, increasing spiritual emphasis was placed on achieving the Beatific Vision (i.e. the sensual experience of seeing God).

    In summary, Sensualism is tactile and emotional, where Classicism is intellectual and rarified. Classicism appeals to the educated and cultural elite. Sensualism appeals to educated and uneducated alike. We find it beginning in the Mannerist per iod, where it coexists with exhausted Classicism. It is greatly developed in the Baroque period, where goes into partnership with Classicism and gives it a new lease of life. Finally, it takes over completely with Romanticism.

    Sensual Beauty

    Just as Classicism came up with a system for generating and using beauty for spiritual purposes, Sensualism has its own approach. But, where you can find the Classical system written down and analyzed through the centuries, the Sensual system is apparent ly spontaneous and the only way you can figure out how it works is by using the skills of visual analysis outlined above.

    Sensual beauty tends to have certain elements that appear often. You can see these as alternatives to the three elements of Classical Beauty.

    Lyrical compositions
    Moody colors - pastels; rich jewel-like colors; dark somber colors
    Moody light - chiaroscuro (strong contrasts of light and shade), shafts of light, colored light, deep shadows, atmospheric perspective (blurring, fading, and blue/greying into the distance).
    Tactile artistic technique (e.g. obvious brushwork, descriptive brushwork; toolmarks in sculpture; rustication in architecture)
    An emphasis on variety of texture in the content (e.g. silks, velvets, furs, linens, marble, glass, ceramic, skin)

    The Tease

    Just as Sensualism has a system of beauty which is equivalent to, but also alternative to Classical Beauty, it also has an equivalent alternative to the Idealization. I have given this alternative the name "The Tease". Again, you will not find this syst em written down anywhere, but check out the art and you will see it very clearly. Like the Idealization, the Tease tells you specific things about the figure:

    1. That he or she is in some way desirable (spiritually, emotionally, or erotically)
    2. That he or she deserves your loyalty, respect, pity, love
    3. That he or she is beyond your reach

    Signals include:

    1. The figure is often NOT idealized
    2. The figure is clothed
    3. It is painted sensually (descriptive brushwork, textures, moody colors, light effects)
    4. The figure often has a youthful aspect
    5. The figure is set at a distance (well behind the picture plane, raised, or partially masked).

    Note, this is applied psychology. The artist uses colors, textures, and associations to attract you strongly, and then removes the object from your reach. That frustrates you and thus increases your emotional response. That is how teasing works. Here is a religious example by Murillo; and here is a secular one.

    Sensualism and Style

    Sensualism has yet another equivalent yet alternative to Classicism. Where Classicism in the two dimensional arts prized drawing skills above all else, Sensualism prizes facility with the brush and with color. This leads inevitably to an appreciation of style, not only as a new skill to admire, but also as an imprint unique to each artist - his "signature" as it were. Thus any consideration of sensual art becomes a conversation between the artist and the audience, and each member of that conversation has a different range of things to say. There are no longer any correct answers, there are only good ones and less good ones.

    Some things to bear in mind when considering style include:

    1. The brushwork, e.g.
        visible, invisible, descriptive, gestural
        static, dynamic or lyrical (or a mixture)
        illusionistic, evocative, textural, exciting, frightening, stodgy (and more)
        relevant or irrelevant (i.e. forming a texture of its own, unrelated to the image)
    2. The color, e.g.
        descriptive, expressive, arbitrary (random)
        warm (red and yellow tones), cold (blue and grey tones), both
        relevant or irrelevant to the content
        relevant or irrelevant to the brushwork
    3. The light, e.g.
        warm, cold
        color-enriching, color-bleaching
        highlights white or colored
        shadows black or grey, or colored
        creating or dissolving three-dimensional form
        cast shadows, or merely modelling in light and shade
        exaggerated, theatrical (spotlight effects in shadow) or all-over
        relevant or irrelevant to the content
        relevant or irrelevant to the brushwork
        relevant or irrelevant to the color
    4. The forms, e.g.
        idealized, naturalistic, or distorted
          distortion mild or extreme

    Some implications of style

    Although people respond to visual stimuli similarly enough for artists to be able to exploit this (we saw this with composition), they also have their differences. In relation to style, the response is as fluid as the style itself. The richness and subtlety of this conversation between the artist and his audience is incredible. Notice how many more aspects there are to consider in relation to style than in relation to composition. Notice that these considerations are no longer general but special to each artist. The inevitable result of all this is connoisseurship (sensitive recognition of subtleties), art collection, and a diminishing emphasis on subject matter with a new appreciation for mood and enigma. The whole approach to art has changed.

    Sensualism and Confrontation

    With its emphasis on feelings, Sensualism introduces an uncontrollable range of new validities in art. For example, the erotic is now suitable subject matter for high art, as is violence and torture. Other validities may seem mundane to us now - landscape and genre (images of everyday life and poor people) were comptemptibly insignificant subjects for high art, and therefore implicitly insulting to their audience. Later, political and social criticism became possible too, and art rediscovered its moral purpose. No longer manifesting God and magically ennobling the soul (as in Classicism), art now piques the conscience to lure and goad us on to a new and better society.


    The Baroque period saw a number of new art forms established, and prominent among these was landscape. Landscape had been used by the Romans as interior decoration for city appartments. Pliny described them and there are many matches, such as this one from

    That landscape at Boscotrase does not have everything you can find in a Classical Landscape. In addition to the goats, you can find cattle (but probably not sheep and not horses). In addition to the land forms, you can expect to find water - distant seas, lakes, and snaking rivers. In addition to the buildings you can often find bridges with many arches spanning the rivers. The time of day is late afternoon or sunset. The figures face towards you on the whole.

    When landscape was revived again in the Baroque period, it was exactly this kind. Here is one by Nicholas Poussin which demonstrates the point. So now you think that all landscapes are bound to loo

    Landscape and the Human Condition

    to be continued ... but try this multiple choice test and let me know what you think.

    Here is another on Dutch and Romantic Landscapes.