Institute of Archaeology


Nature, culture and the languages of art: theories and methodologies ofart interpretation

Please note that this course will not be running in 2019/20

This course introduces students to a range of key theories and methodologies of art analysis, including: iconography, style analysis, structuralism, semiotics, ethology, psychologies of art, concepts of 'naturalism', art and ornament. The topics and authors considered will range from classic approaches to art history by founding figures such as Panofsky and Wolfflin, through to key recent contributions by scholars such as Whitney Davis and Gallese and Freedberg, working in the fields of the semiotics of art and neuro-art history. The substantive focus of the course will be exploring how far languages of visual art are naturally grounded in the biology of human perception, how far they are cultural constructs, analogous to language, and what the entailments might be for how we should understand and analyse visual art. It is best taken in conjunction with the course Social and material contexts of art.

Aims and Objectives of the course

  • To provide an advanced, inter-disciplinary, exploration of key frameworks for the analysis and interpretation of the art of past societies, with a particular focus on theories and methods for the analysis of visual art.
  • To introduce students to the most important current research questions and the main interpretative paradigms that have dominated approaches to the understanding ancient art.
  • To develop critical faculties both in debate and in written evaluation of current research (problems, method and theory, quality of evidence).
  • To prepare students to undertake original research in the comparative study of art

Learning Outcomes

On successful completion of the course students should be able to:

  • demonstrate a good knowledge and understanding of major themes and debates concerning the cultural and behavioral foundations of communication in visual art
  • critically analyse and present complex arguments and theories about aspects of the subject orally and in writing
  • show a critical awareness of the contribution made by different academic disciplines and varying approaches to the analysis of visual art of past societies

Teaching Methods

The course is taught through 10 two-hour seminars. Students are provided with a reading list for each seminar. Each seminar will be opened with a short presentation by the teacher to be followed by a detailed consideration of the topic in hand by students. Seminars have weekly recommended readings, which students will be expected to have done, to be able fully to follow and actively to contribute to discussion. Each seminar will conclude with the outline of preparatory reading and any other tasks proposed for the following week.

The course is assessed by a single essay 4000 words in length. This permits the students to engage with the the issues raised by the course at an appropriate level of depth for MA work. 

Course information

  • Code: ARCL0174 
  • Credits: 15
  • Coordinator: Jeremy Tanner
  • Prerequisite: This course does not have a prerequisite
  • Handbook: open»

For registered students

  • Moodle page: open
  • Reading list:


  • Running in 2019/20