A Classical History of Art is a high school course that teaches art history from a classical perspective, beginning with prehistoric art and continuing through modern art. There are occasional references to faith and its effect on values and on art itself, so it will appeal most to those who want to advance a Christian worldview.
This is a one-semester survey course that moves quickly through each period with selected examples.
The course consists of a teacher guide, a student book, a set of art cards, and online videos. The artworks presented for study range widely to include works such as cave paintings, megalithic structures, sculptures, a crucifix, an illuminated manuscript, paintings, and architecture.
In keeping with the course’s classical orientation, students are expected to approach art with a recognition that good art is universally beautiful and not subject to individual interpretation. In the first video, course presenter Kyle M. Janke asks students to consider the foundational question, “Should pleasure, our pleasure, shape what we think of beauty, or should beauty shape what we find pleasurable?” The course clearly supports the latter position. Following this line of thinking, the course includes several nude images, based on the idea that nudity expressed in art, such as the classic Greek statues studied in the course, presents humanity as we ought to be, to help us recognize true beauty. For a thorough explanation of the rationale, eloquently presented by the author, parents should read this article about the course’s inclusion of nudity before purchasing the course.
The course is presented in three units with four chapters per unit. Chapters are presented in chronological order to trace the development of art in relation to historical events and shifting values.
The teacher guide includes images of the student pages with comments on the Socratic Discussion Questions added beneath or next to the images. Reproducible tests and answer keys are also in the teacher guide—two tests per unit plus a final exam. The appendix of the teacher guide also has an optional, reproducible Artwork Analysis form that can help students develop observation skills.
In both teacher and student books, each chapter has the same structure. It begins with an introduction that includes an overview of the period or type of art to be discussed, as well as the study of an image that illustrates the main ideas of the chapter.
The “Features” section in each chapter discusses the time period, an overview of the primary styles of artwork produced, primary artists, and the media that were used to create artworks. The content is necessarily selective and brief because the purpose is to provide an introductory framework for over 5,000 years of art history upon which students can build with further study. Students are learning the history of art while also learning about artistic techniques, media, architecture, and other topics.
Next, students are presented with a list of vocabulary terms and definitions to memorize.
Four chapters include a section titled “Principles of Composition,” and four chapters have an “Analysis” section with a detailed explanation of the art techniques in particular works.
Seven chapters include a “Master Copy” assignment where students try to draw a copy of a specified artwork. Students are not given any instruction on how to do this, and their efforts are not expected to be great. But the idea is that they will develop skills in observation by having to look closely at an image for a prolonged period, and they should also develop their own art skills by attempting to copy masterful artworks. For all but one of these assignments, students will work only with pencil and paper; one assignment has them also use ink and any media for color.
A set of eighty, full-color, 5” x 7” art cards is used for the next section, “Socratic Discussion Questions.” While Janke provides some of his own comments regarding these cards in his video lectures, students are to discuss a key question in regard to each card with someone else. The discussions should address key ideas presented in the chapter, and the teacher guide includes a few notes for the teacher with possible topics or ideas that should be raised. In addition, students are to memorize the information on the back of each card, including the title of the artwork, the artist (if known), the date, and the period (e.g., prehistoric or Renaissance). Lines are provided for additional notes.
There are 14 online videos, all presented by Janke—a video for each chapter plus introductory and concluding videos. Aside from the brief concluding video, the videos run from about 20 to 40 minutes. Janke covers the material in the student text, then expands upon it with additional commentary. In the first two videos, Janke seems a bit stiff, but as he progresses, he seems to relax, and his presentations become more engaging. While the course books don’t specify when to watch the videos, I would begin the study of each chapter with the video.
The videos make the course content much more understandable and interesting, so don’t skip them. Reading the student book by itself might give students the impression that the course leans too heavily on memorizing vocabulary and details of each artwork. But the videos significantly change the tone as Janke expands on the lessons and explains with examples.
Janke states in the “Lesson 1” video that art illustrates what a civilization values most, so students are frequently asked what values a particular artwork reveals. This aspect leads students to think about worldviews (core values and beliefs) regarding art. The teacher guide suggests elements that should be addressed for some of the questions, but usually, student answers will vary. In the videos, Janke also discusses the Socratic Discussion Questions to some extent. However, his coverage of the questions is intended to prepare students for their own discussion rather than replace it.
A Classical History of Art makes learning the history of art enjoyable by presenting exemplary works of art for study rather than just covering each period with broad strokes. It is a demanding study in that students are expected to memorize vocabulary and information, but students should come away with a foundational framework for art history and an understanding of how art reflects the values of its culture.