BA Art History and Russian

Year of entry: 2022

Course unit details:
Art and the Early Modern Body

Unit code AHCP20132
Credit rating 20
Unit level Level 2
Teaching period(s) Semester 2
Offered by Art History and Cultural Practices
Available as a free choice unit? Yes


The body was of great concern in the early modern world, whether one was thinking about health, religion, geography or identity. It was, for instance, newly centralised in the ‘high’ arts of oil painting and sculpture from the Renaissance, as the study of life models and anatomy formed part of the artist’s training. ‘Likeness’ and the body’s features were also crucial to the development of the portrait, and notions of identity. Representations of the body were of great importance in rapidly expanding fields of knowledge, from medicine and anatomy to global exploration. Finally, images of holy and profane bodies were points of deep anxiety and contention in the period’s religious upheavals.


Covering the period 1500-1800, this course will encompass many kinds of art object: from the portraits of Van Dyck and the etchings of Rembrandt, to manuscript book illustrations and wax sculptures. Using representations of the human body as our focus, we will gain a broad understanding of the art of this period, and how people interacted with it in the process of understanding themselves.


  • To gain a broad knowledge of the art produced in the early modern period in Europe.
  • To understand how art informed and intersected with different spheres of culture and knowledge: from religion to medicine, politics to geography.
  • To uncover how early modern people understood and experienced their bodies.
  • To explore the different ways in which early modern bodies could be significant, and express ideas about the world.
  • To develop a critical eye when looking at representations of bodies, to question ideas of accuracy, representation and information.

Knowledge and understanding

  • To gain knowledge of different spheres of culture and knowledge in the early modern period, and how they inform our studies of art.
  • To gain experience of the kinds of art produced, the material processes of making and how they were engaged with by early modern people.
  • To gain knowledge of the ways in which the body could have meaning for early modern people.

Intellectual skills

  • To look critically at images of bodies, with awareness of the ways in which they form and represent knowledge.
  • To articulate in critical writing how we can understand and explore the roles of art in the early modern period.
  • To draw connections and comparisons between different kinds of bodily representations, and the bodies of knowledge from which they arose.

Practical skills

  • To conduct research into early modern artworks.
  • To engage with writing about art, bodies and culture from different methodological perspectives.
  • To effectively undertake both close-study of particular artworks, and connect them to the wider cultures in which they were produced and viewed.

Transferable skills and personal qualities

  • To understand the dynamics of a past culture, and think sensitively about how images and culture change over time.
  • To participate in constructive group work and discussions with peers.
  • To speak in front of a group and effectively present ideas.
  • To write clearly to communicate ideas and arguments.

Employability skills

- Critical thinking about images and visual information. - Conducting research, formulating arguments and supporting them with evidence. - Working independently. - Working as part of a team and sharing ideas constructively. - Personally managing timetables and deadlines.

Assessment methods

Method Weight
Other 20%
Written exam 40%
Written assignment (inc essay) 40%

Feedback methods

Written feedback on first essay Summative
One-on-one meeting to discuss first essay and plan the second essay (during office hours) Formative
Written feedback on second essay Summative


Recommended reading

John Berger, Ways of Seeing (London: Penguin, 2008 [1972]).


Jill Burke, The Italian Renaissance Nude (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2018).


Michael Cole and Mary Pardo, Inventions of the Studio: Renaissance to Romanticism (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005).


Lorraine Daston and Katharine Park, Wonders and the Order of Nature: 1150-1750 (New York, Zone Books, 1998).


Barbara Duden, The Woman Beneath the Skin: A Doctor’s Patients in Eighteenth-Century Germany (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991 [1987]).


Joanna Woodall, ed., Portraiture: Facing the Subject (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1997).


Sachiko Kusukawa, Picturing the Book of Nature: Image, Text, and Argument in Sixteenth-Century Human Anatomy and Medical Botany (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012).


Walter Melion, Michael Cole and Rebecca Zorach eds., The Idol in the Age of Art: Objects, Devotions and the Early Modern World (Farnham: Ashgate, 2009).


Catherine Richardson, Tara Hamling and David Gaimster eds., The Routledge Handbook of Material Culture in Early Modern Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 2017).

Study hours

Scheduled activity hours
Lectures 11
Seminars 22
Independent study hours
Independent study 167

Teaching staff

Staff member Role
Rebecca Whiteley Unit coordinator

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