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Art history

We understand the history of humanity through art. From prehistoric depictions of wooly mammoths to contemporary abstraction, artists have addressed their time and place in history and have expressed universal human truths for tens of thousands of years. Learn what made Rome great, how Islamic tile work evolved, why the Renaissance happened, and about the brilliant art being produced today around the globe. Dr. Beth Harris and Dr. Steven Zucker, together with leading art historians, have created hundreds of short engaging conversational videos and articles, making Khan Academy one of the most accessible and extensive resources for the study of the history of art. Come with us to the Louvre, to a church in Rome, and to a mosque in Istanbul so that you can experience the art up close and on location. Also maintained at http://smarthistory.khanacademy.org/.
Community Questions

Art History Basics

New to art? If so, this is a good place to start. We often think we should understand what we see and that we know what we like, but art can be challenging. It has meant different things at different moments in history. Art gives us access to the way other people have seen the world. Jump in and explore!

- 400 C.E. Ancient cultures

Humans have been making art for tens of thousands of years, long before there was writing. Why was Egyptian art obsessed with death? Why did the ancient Greeks seek the perfect human form? How did the ancient Romans use art as state propaganda? Why was the naturalism of ancient Greek and Roman art abandoned with the rise of Christianity? This topic explores the art of the ancient world, from the Venus of Willendorf to a 6th-Century Chinese Bodhisattva.

400-1300 Medieval Era

Were the Middle Ages really all that dark? Hardly! How could we call the period that saw the building of Chartres Cathedral with its stunning stained-glass windows, dark? Sure, the Roman empire collapsed, but with the Christianization of Europe came magnificent churches, illuminated bibles, and intricately designed broaches. This period also saw the birth of Islam, the third great monotheistic religion.

1300-1400 Proto-Renaissance

This is a transitional period. In the art of Florence and Siena there is a move away from medieval abstract depictions of space and the human body as artists began to focus on the illusion of mass and space and the expression of human emotion. With hindsight, it is possible to trace elements of Renaissance art back to this period. This century saw the creation of the beautiful poetry of Dante and Petrarch, but it is also the century that saw the worst outbreak of the Bubonic plague (known then as the Black Death) which wiped out close to half the population of Europe—a terrifying statistic, difficult to imagine today. This topic focuses on two Italian city-states—Florence and Siena, both proud republics in the 14th century, and the great painters of those city-states, Giotto and Cimabue in Florence, and Duccio, Martini and the Lorenzetti brothers in Siena.

1400-1500 Renaissance in Italy and the North

This is the century that sees the full realization of the Renaissance and the end of the medieval way of thinking about the world. The Humanist rediscovery of ancient Greek and Roman culture is supported by the wealth accumulated in prosperous cities such as Bruges, Florence, and Venice. New wealth and increasing trade created a demand for an art based on the world we see. The second half of the century saw the invention of the printing press, and Columbus’s voyage. And though he was heading for the East, Columbus landed in the Americas, and suddenly there were vast new continents for Europe to exploit economically and to Christianize. The century begins with the magnificent sculptures of Claus Sluter and ends with the elegant figures of Leonardo da Vinci.

1500-1600 End of the Renaissance and the Reformation

If there was one century in the past that saw radical changes in established ways of thinking comparable to the 20th Century, it would be the 16th. Before this, in Western Europe, there was only one type of Christianity—under the authority of the Pope in Rome. But in 1517 a German theologian and monk, Martin Luther, sparked the Protestant Reformation. His ideas spread quickly, thanks in part to the printing press. Luther challenged the power of the Pope and the Church, and asserted the authority of individual conscience. At the same time, it was increasingly possible for people to read the bible in the languages that they spoke. It is also during this period that the Scientific Revolution began and observation replaced religious doctrine as the source of our understanding of the universe and our place in it. At mid-century, Copernicus suggested that the sun was at the center of solar system (not the earth), radically repositioning human beings and therefore calling into question our centrality in the universe that God had created.

1600-1700 The Baroque

The 17th Century is the era of the Baroque style, characterized by energy, drama, and movement. The Church in Rome needed art that spoke to its resurgent power even as the conflict between Protestant and Catholics continued. A new realism—with a special sensitivity to light—also pervades the art of this period across Europe and can be seen especially in the work of Caravaggio, Velazquez, Ruysdael, and Vermeer. But where in Catholic countries, the Church remained a major patron of religious images, in the Protestant Dutch Republic, artists painted an expanded range subjects like still-lifes, landscapes and genre paintings for the middle class.

1700-1800 Age of Enlightenment

From the frivolous paintings of Fragonard to the politically-charged moralizing images of David, this tutorial brings us from the King of France and his court—the 1%—to the democratic aspirations of the French and American revolutionaries. The Kings of France ruled by divine right, but Enlightenment thinkers (for example, Voltaire and Diderot) asserted our ability to reason for ourselves rather than rely on the teachings of established institutions. Rousseau in “The Social Contract,” stated that power to govern resided in the hands of the people. In 1788 the new United States ratified its Constitution, and in 1793, King Louis XVI was beheaded. Artists in France, America and Britain—some sympathetic to revolutionary ideals, others not—were nevertheless all caught up in the political upheavals of this period.

1800-1848 Industrial Revolution I

With the failure of the French Revolution (Napoleon crowned himself Emperor, and after his defeat, a King was restored to power in France), there was a turn away from public, political life, toward personal, subjective experience. In large part, this turn characterizes the new style of Romanticism (don’t confuse this with our own use of the term romantic!), whether we look to art in France, Spain, England or Germany. Where Neo-Classical painters created virtuous and heroic subjects with figures willing to sacrifice for the public good, Romantic painters asserted the primacy of emotion and the irrational.

1848-1907 Industrial Revolution II

The art of this period is familiar, since the world of the Realists, Impressionists and Post-Impressionists is much like our own. More and more people lived in cities and worked in factories or shops for wages. Scientific and technological advances increased dramatically during this period and although there was dislocation and privation, standards of living increased sharply. In essence, modern mass culture was born. Artists responded sometimes by embracing these radical changes, and at other times by resisting them. Key here is understanding the authority of the various art academies in Europe, which controlled matters related to taste and art, and which were, to some extent, always connected to the government. A small number of artists rebelled against the strictures of the academy, and against the demand for art to tell clear stories for a middle class audience, and formed what we know as the “avant-garde.”

1907-1960 Age of Global Conflict

Europe in 1907 was powerful, wealthy and stable. The British Empire was unmatched with huge territories that stretched across the globe. The Austrian-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires remained intact, and the Italians, Germans, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese retained colonies. Nevertheless, the old order would soon collapse, a result of the Great War in 1914. But this trauma was only the beginning. A global financial collapse precipitated by the stock market crash of 1929 allowed Mussolini, Franco and Hitler to seize power. The violence only worsened with the Holocaust, Japanese Imperial expansion, and the Second World War. At the same time, this was a period of radical advances in music (Stravinsky, Bartok, etc.), in dance (Duncan, Graham, etc.) in literature (Joyce, Pound, etc.), science (Einstein, Heisenberg, etc.), and of course, in art (Matisse, Picasso, etc.). In the years between the wars artists explored abstraction and the irrational. After the war, and with Europe in ruins, the focus of the art world shifted from Paris to New York where Abstract Expressionism was born.

1960 - Age of Post-Colonialism

By 1960, the unprecedented violence of the first half of the century had ebbed, replaced by the Cold War and threat of nuclear catastrophe. The vacuum left by European powers as they withdrew from their colonies instigated a global power grab as small nations sought autonomy but became proxies in a global strategic confrontation between Western and Soviet or Chinese ideologies. At the same time protest movements in the West called for an end to war, racism, and gender inequality. Powerful, entrenched conservative institutions such as the Catholic Church were transformed. The assassinations of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., coupled later with Watergate, created a deep distrust for institutional authority. Artists responded by producing exceptionally thoughtful, original and provocative work that became increasingly global in its perspective.
400-1300 Medieval Era
Were the Middle Ages really all that dark? Hardly! How could we call the period that saw the building of Chartres Cathedral with its stunning stained-glass windows, dark? Sure, the Roman empire collapsed, but with the Christianization of Europe came magnificent churches, illuminated bibles, and intricately designed broaches. This period also saw the birth of Islam, the third great monotheistic religion.
All content in “400-1300 Medieval Era”

Early Christian

The first Christians were often persecuted in the Ancient Roman empire, but when—thanks to Constantine—Christianity became legal in the 4th century, Christians could worship openly and the first churches were built in Rome and Christians could be buried in tombs sculpted with Christian imagery. This tutorial takes you on a tour of early Christian churches, and takes a close look at the sarcophagus of a Roman senator who died in 359.

Early Medieval

Christian art, which was initially influenced by the illusionary quality of classical art, started to move away from naturalistic representation and instead pushed toward abstraction. Artists began to abandon classical artistic conventions like shading, modeling and perspective—conventions that make the image appear more real. They no longer observed details in nature to record them in paint, bronze, marble, or mosaic.


Today, we know the city of Constantinople as Istanbul (in fact there’s a song about that!). But even before it was Constantinople, it was the ancient city of Byzantium, and it was renamed Constantinople (city of Constantine) by none other than the Emperor Constantine himself (it’s good to be the emperor!). From there a succession of emperors ruled the Byzantine empire as the Roman empire dissolved. For two centuries, the Byzantine empire even included the Italian city of Ravenna, where many churches decorated with astoundingly beautiful mosaics can still be found. In Byzantine art we see a departure from the naturalism of the ancient Greek and Roman world. Figures float in ethereal gold heavenly spaces in mosaics, and we find intricate carvings made from ivory, a luxurious material imported from Africa.


Otto I (who became emperor in 962) lends his name to the “Ottonian” period. He forged an important alliance with the Pope, which allowed him to be crowned the first official Holy Roman Emperor since 924.

The Crusades

Crusading took many different forms, and attempting to precisely define crusading has engaged historians in intense debates for more than 150 years.


Visogoths, Ostrogoths, and Vikings, oh my! Western Europe was not a peaceful place during the 600 years after the fall of the Roman Empire. Western Europe (what is now Italy, France, Spain, England, etc.) had been repeatedly invaded. The result was a fractured feudal society with little stability and little economic growth. Charlemagne and the Ottonians had partially and briefly unified the West, and of course the Church was a stabilizing institution, but it was only in the 11th Century that everything changed. Now there was finally enough peace and prosperity to allow for travel and for the widespread construction of large buildings. These were, with rare exceptions, the first large structures to be built in the West since the fall of the Romans so many centuries before. We call the period Romanesque (Roman-like) because the masons of this period looked back to the architecture of ancient Rome. The relative calm of the Romanesque period also meant it was possible to travel, and the faithful set out on pilgrimages in great numbers to visit holy relics in churches across Europe. This meant that ideas and styles also traveled, towns grew and churches were built and enlarged.


No, we’re not talking about the dark subculture we know as Goth! We’re talking about the style of art and architecture In Europe from the 1100s to the beginnings of the Renaissance at about 1400. Hopefully by the end of this tutorial when someone says Gothic, you’ll think of enormous stained-glass windows in churches whose vaulted ceilings reach toward heaven and not black clothing and dark eyeliner!

Art of the Americas

If you are an art historian with expertise in this area and would like to contribute content, please contact Beth or Steven.

Overview quiz on medieval art

These questions focus on works of art from across the different periods of the middle ages.