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Art and life before 1800

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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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Course work includes:

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