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Art and life before 1800

This is a foundational module for studying art history, exploring the many and dynamic roles that art, architecture and other artefacts played in human life from prehistory up to 1800 CE, from cave paintings through Byzantine icons to artists’ etchings. In the period before 1800, artworks were not unchanging objects of appreciation destined for museum walls. Instead, they were closely connected to people’s social, economic, political and spiritual lives. In this module, you'll study key examples of this dynamic relationship and learn how to analyse artworks methodically and thoughtfully in their historical contexts.

Modules count towards OU qualifications

OU qualifications are modular in structure; the credits from this undergraduate module could count towards a certificate of higher education, diploma of higher education, foundation degree or honours degree.

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Module code




  • Credits measure the student workload required for the successful completion of a module or qualification.
  • One credit represents about 10 hours of study over the duration of the course.
  • You are awarded credits after you have successfully completed a module.
  • For example, if you study a 60-credit module and successfully pass it, you will be awarded 60 credits.

Study level

Across the UK, there are two parallel frameworks for higher education qualifications, the Framework for Higher Education Qualifications in England, Northern Ireland and Wales (FHEQ) and the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework (SCQF). These define a hierarchy of levels and describe the achievement expected at each level. The information provided shows how OU module levels correspond to these frameworks.
Level of Study
2 8 5

Study method

Module cost

Entry requirements

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What you will study

How was art part of people’s lives before 1800? Why does this matter when studying artworks from this period? To answer these questions, this module surveys an exciting range of artworks drawn from across the world and across history to help you deepen and broaden your art-historical knowledge.

The module is structured into four parts. Together, these trace the lifecycle of an artwork, beginning with the environment where it emerged, then focusing on how it was made, on how it was used and, finally, on how it was experienced. As a whole, these four parts will give you a sound understanding of key artworks and related historical and cultural issues. At the core of your learning lies four specially written books covering a range of case studies chosen to illuminate a facet of the relationships between art and life.

The first book, Art and its Environments, shows that artworks both structure and reveal how humans related to their natural environments before 1800. The first chapter is about landscapes, followed by chapters on forests, mountains, snowscapes and islands. You’ll learn about Dutch and Chinese landscape paintings, monumental constructions at Stonehenge and Versailles, and devotional paintings from Venice and Japan. You’ll also study Machu Picchu (Wayna Pikchu), imagery showing Frost Fairs on the Thames in London, illuminated manuscripts from medieval England and map-making in the South Pacific.

The second book, Art in the Making, is about the materials, work and technologies of art but also about the distinct social values placed on art-makers. The five chapters cover sculpture, ceramics, paintings, prints, and architecture. You’ll investigate the sixteenth-century Roman sculptor Michelangelo, works in granite by Mexican stone-carvers, cave paintings and Byzantine icons, prints on paper from ancient China and eighteenth-century England, ceramic artistry in Italy and China, and the making of vast domed buildings in early modern London and Constantinople (present-day İstanbul).

The third book, Art in Action, explores the many roles played by art once it has left the makers’ hands. Here, the five chapters are devoted to ritual, mobility, collecting, worship and honouring the dead. You’ll study how these activities both generated and deployed artworks, including whole Viking ships and great cathedrals as well as small jewels enmeshed in the trans-Saharan trade-routes. You’ll also work on aristocratic art collecting in England and the Ottoman Empire, sculptures made for west African divination rituals and the precious objects used in Inuit and European burial practices.

The final book, Encountering Art, is about what happens when somebody engages with an artwork in person. It shows that all of the bodily senses are vital in this, not just vision. Accordingly, the five chapters explore touch, hearing, taste, smell, and sight. You’ll explore ancient Greek ceramics, works by the seventeenth-century Roman painter Caravaggio, the art of Persian gardens and European natural history, urban design in early modern London, sacred spaces in Byzantium and northern Europe, and the various ways that vision was understood prior to the invention of photography.

You will learn

By studying this module you'll learn:

  • how to investigate and understand artworks across a diverse range of contexts to form a solid foundation for further art-historical study or independent inquiry
  • key art-historical terms, concepts, and issues relevant to art made before 1800
  • skills of visual analysis and comparison crucial to art history, as well as critical reading and research skills that are highly transferrable
  • about the art history of the Four Nations of the United Kingdom and also from across the world, including objects held in a range of museums, collections and also heritage sites.

Teaching and assessment

Support from your tutor

Throughout your module studies, you’ll get help and support from your assigned module tutor. They’ll help you by:

  • marking your assignments (TMAs) and providing detailed feedback for you to improve
  • guiding you to additional learning resources
  • providing individual guidance, whether for general study skills or specific module content
  • facilitating on-line discussions between your fellow students, in the dedicated module and tutor group forums.

Module tutors also run on-line tutorials throughout the module and there may be dedicated gallery or site visits. Where possible, recordings of on-line tutorials will be made available to students. While these tutorials and gallery or site visits won’t be compulsory for you to complete the module, you’re strongly encouraged to take part.


The assessment details for this module can be found in the facts box.

Future availability

Art and life before 1800 starts once a year – October. This page describes the module that will start in October 2024. We expect it to start for the last time in October 2035.


As a student of The Open University, you should be aware of the content of the academic regulations which are available on our Student Policies and Regulations website.

Course work includes:

4 Tutor-marked assignments (TMAs)
End-of-module assessment

Entry requirements

This is an OU level 2 module in art history but it is nevertheless available for standalone study. OU level 2 modules build on study skills and subject knowledge acquired from studies at OU level 1. They are intended only for students who have recent experience of higher education in a related subject, preferably at the OU.

If you have any doubt about the suitability of the module, please speak to an adviser.

Preparatory work

Once you have registered on this module, you’ll have access to a dedicated art history forum and a variety of art-historical bridging activities that you can complete prior to the module starting. They are, however, not mandatory.


Start End England fee Register
05 Oct 2024 Jun 2025 £3636.00

Registration closes 05/09/24 (places subject to availability)

This module is expected to start for the last time in October 2035.

Additional Costs

Study costs

There may be extra costs on top of the tuition fee, such as set books, a computer and internet access.

If your income is not more than £25,000 or you receive a qualifying benefit, you might be eligible for help with some of these costs after your module has started.

Ways to pay for this module

Open University Student Budget Account

The Open University Student Budget Accounts Ltd (OUSBA) offers a convenient 'pay as you go' option to pay your OU fees, which is a secure, quick and easy way to pay. Please note that The Open University works exclusively with OUSBA and is not able to offer you credit facilities from any other provider. All credit is subject to status and proof that you can afford the repayments.

You pay the OU through OUSBA in one of the following ways:

  • Register now, pay later – OUSBA pays your module fee direct to the OU. You then repay OUSBA interest-free and in full just before your module starts. 0% APR representative. This option could give you the extra time you may need to secure the funding to repay OUSBA.
  • Pay by instalments – OUSBA calculates your monthly fee and number of instalments based on the cost of the module you are studying. APR 5.1% representative.

Joint loan applications

If you feel you would be unable to obtain an OUSBA loan on your own due to credit history or affordability issues, OUSBA offers the option to apply for a joint loan application with a third party. For example, your husband, wife, partner, parent, sibling or friend. In such cases, OUSBA will be required to carry out additional affordability checks separately and/or collectively for both joint applicants who will be jointly and severally liable for loan repayments.

As additional affordability checks are required when processing joint loan applications, unfortunately, an instant decision cannot be given. On average the processing time for a joint loan application is five working days from receipt of the required documentation.

Read more about Open University Student Budget Accounts (OUSBA).

Employer sponsorship

Studying with The Open University can boost your employability. OU courses are recognised and respected by employers for their excellence and the commitment they take to complete. They also value the skills that students learn and can apply in the workplace.

More than one in ten OU students are sponsored by their employer, and over 30,000 employers have used the OU to develop staff so far. If the module you’ve chosen is geared towards your job or developing your career, you could approach your employer to see if they will sponsor you by paying some or all of the fees. 

  • Your employer just needs to complete a simple form to confirm how much they will be paying and we will invoice them.
  • You won’t need to get your employer to complete the form until after you’ve chosen your module.  

Credit/debit card

You can pay part or all of your tuition fees upfront with a debit or credit card when you register for each module. 

We accept American Express, Mastercard, Visa and Visa Electron. 

Mixed payments

We know that sometimes you may want to combine payment options. For example, you may wish to pay part of your tuition fee with a debit card and pay the remainder in instalments through an Open University Student Budget Account (OUSBA).

Please note: your permanent address/domicile will affect your fee status and, therefore, the fees you are charged and any financial support available to you. The fee information provided here is valid for modules starting before 31 July 2025. Fees typically increase annually. For further information about the University's fee policy, visit our Fee Rules

This information was provided on 23/06/2024.

Can you study an Access module for free?

Depending on eligibility and availability of places, you could apply to study your Access module for free.

To qualify, you must:

  1. be resident in England
  2. have a household income of less than £25,000 (or be in receipt of a qualifying benefit)
  3. have not completed one year or more on any full-time undergraduate programme at FHEQ level 4 or above or successfully completed 30 credits or more of OU study within the last 10 years

How to apply to study an Access module for free

Once you've started the registration process, either online or over the phone, we'll contact you about your payment options. This will include instructions on how you can apply to study for free if you are eligible and funded places are still available.

If you're unsure if you meet the criteria to study for free, you can check with one of our friendly advisers on +44 (0)300 303 0069, or you can request a call back.

Not eligible to study for free?

Don't worry! We offer a choice of flexible ways to help spread the cost of your Access module. The most popular options include:

  • monthly payments through OUSBA
  • part-time tuition fee loan (you'll need to be registered on a qualification for this option)

To explore all the options available to you, visit Fees and Funding.

What's included

You’ll be provided with four printed module books, and have access to a module website, which includes:

  • a week-by-week study planner to help you manage your time
  • all the module materials in digital form, including the four module books, a glossary and specially devised image galleries to support your studies
  • a stimulating virtual learning environment carefully constructed to frame and consolidate what you learn from the printed books week-by-week, including interactives and specially produced or sourced audio and video content
  • an assessment guide to guide you through the written assignments for this module
  • on-line tutorials and forums where you can engage with tutors and fellow students
  • a wide range of scholarly resources, including journals and electronic books.

Computing requirements

You’ll need broadband internet access and a desktop or laptop computer with an up-to-date version of Windows (10 or 11) or macOS Ventura or higher.

Any additional software will be provided or is generally freely available.

To join in spoken conversations in tutorials, we recommend a wired headset (headphones/earphones with a built-in microphone).

Our module websites comply with web standards, and any modern browser is suitable for most activities.

Our OU Study mobile app will operate on all current, supported versions of Android and iOS. It’s not available on Kindle.

It’s also possible to access some module materials on a mobile phone, tablet device or Chromebook. However, as you may be asked to install additional software or use certain applications, you’ll also require a desktop or laptop, as described above.

If you have a disability

The OU strives to make all aspects of study accessible to everyone and this Accessibility Statement outlines what studying A237 involves. You should use this information to inform your study preparations and any discussions with us about how we can meet your needs.

To find out more about what kind of support and adjustments might be available, contact us or visit our disability support pages.