Undergrad Adventures: European Romanesque through Baroque Art

Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus" is one of my favorite paintings, and I was so glad it popped up in this class.
Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” is one of my favorite paintings, and I was so glad it popped up in this class.

I needed some extra units this quarter, so I decided to pick up an art history class. I definitely count art and art history as hobbies: I love going to museums, reading books about art and incorporating art into my daily life.

This particular class covers Western art history from the European romanesque (early medieval) era to the baroque. This also includes the Renaissance, which honestly deserves an entire class. While I’m a little sick of the lecture-group work-exam class structure (My senioritis has just kicked in), I have enjoyed this class more than I thought I would.

Everyone should take an elective they really love.

You love United States history? Take a class in it. You want to know how to code? Sign up for a workshop. Beyond the knowledge I gained about the subject material, this class taught me that taking electives you want to take is really a form of self-care and makes you a well-rounded person. I love literature classes, but this class was a great diversion from my normal and further fused my hobby with my everyday schedule. I really wish I would have taken more art history classes earlier on in my college career so I would have gotten the full deal.

Romanesque through Baroque art is still not my thing, but I feel more comfortable discussing it. 

Talking about art from the Impressionists onwards is my jam. So as you can imagine, I walked into this class feeling a little bit uncomfortable. From the eighth century to the 15th century in Europe, all of the art was religious, which is something I don’t have much experience with. The fact that 99.9 percent of this art had some religious context makes sense, though. The only people/groups who had money to spend on commissioning art were the religious figures/churches. If they weren’t inspired by Greco-Roman statuary, these artists were borrowing the Byzantine style, and modernism was just a twinkle in the sky.

Nine weeks into the class, however, I feel more comfortable talking about the art from this time period and the cultural significance of these pieces. I can now explain to you what a polyptych is, and tell you all about both Donatello and Michelangelo’s David. I’m glad that I can add all of this information to my breadth of art history knowledge, and that if anyone ever asked me about the Mérode altarpiece or the different parts of a pilgrimage cathedral, I could totally carry on a conversation.

The idea that art is truly everywhere seems to have originated in this time period.

One of the best things I’ve learned in this class is that art is really everywhere. The Europeans crammed sculpture and paintings into just about every corner of the cathedrals they built, from the windows to the door jambs. Their idea (well, those who believed that decorating churches made them even holier and showed incredible devotion) was that everyone, including the illiterate, needed to have the fear God instilled in them. Because so many people could not read, the best way to do that beyond a sermon was making it incredibly visual. There are some insane tympana that probably scared everyone who crossed through the church.

I have to say, I’m really glad they did that. I think that attention to detail and deliberate move to put art where everyone could see it has direct implications for the architecture that follows it. The trend in architecture right now is insanely minimalist, but when I was in downtown Los Angeles last week, I could even see the care taken to add details to the architecture of some of the early 20th century buildings. It just makes me happy that it all exists.

But multiple choice tests continue to suck. 

Granted, I am sort of glad that the exams for this class are multiple choice. Sometimes it’s easier to pick out the right answer from a list of wrong ones instead of trying to pull it from my head. And it is really difficult to retain all of the information, from the name of the artist (so many Italians) to what the pieces are made out of. But 75 percent of the questions on the test ask those kinds of questions. Who is the artist? Who commissioned this piece? Where was it displayed? What is this color/item/person in the painting supposed to represent? What is this architectural detail called?

While I find knowing all of that information important, especially if you’re going to be an art historian, regurgitating it to mark A, B, C or D doesn’t do much to help me retain the art’s cultural significance. There is an essay portion of the exam that approaches this idea of explaining why the pieces are important to talk about, and I’ve rocked it both times. A good art history class would have a lecture component, but also a component where we discuss the pieces and what we think about them. Tl;dr Death to multiple choice tests.

Do you like art history, or have something to say about an elective you really enjoyed? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

3 responses to “Undergrad Adventures: European Romanesque through Baroque Art”

  1. I’m so relieved to hear of your excitement in art history!
    I do want to comment a little about the religious content and nature of most of the artwork you encountered during your class. Didn’t you find the separation of church and state through the Reformation and the Enlightenment period fascinating? Especially in relation to the arts? Personally, I love how characteristic the religious artwork is and how telling it is of the time period. This time period that you studied is wonderful marriage of art history and world history.

    1. Thanks for commenting! You know, what’s really interesting is that the professor barely touched on the historical information of the Reformation and stopped just before the Enlightenment. But yes, I do find the separation fascinating in light of how tightly church and state were tied and that for a very long time, the primary form of patronage for artists were commissions from clergy to design or decorate the churches. One of the specific examples I found really interesting was that the colonnades of St. Peter’s were supposed to be so wide and circular to suggest the “church’s welcoming arms” in light of the Reformation. I’m most comfortable with modern art, but this time period ended up being a nice departure.

      1. Yes! A great deal of art during this time period was extremely symbolic. Anywhere from direct symbols of color to the colonnades that you spoke of. I look forward to following your blog!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Blog at WordPress.com.

%d bloggers like this: