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Why Study Art from the Past?

Kristen, TAG Member

Posted: Friday, January 20, 2012

Marriage portraits attributed to the Maestro delle Storie del Pane

Attributed to the Maestro delle Storie del Pane (Italian [Emilian], active late 15th century). Portrait of a Man, possibly Matteo di Sebastiano di Bernardino Gozzadini (left) and Portrait of a Woman, possibly Ginevra d'Antonio Lupari Gozzadini (right), ca. 1485–95. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Robert Lehman Collection, 1975 (1975.1.95, 96)

«Art from the past holds clues to life in the past. By looking at a work of art's symbolism, colors, and materials, we can learn about the culture that produced it.» For example, the two portraits above are full of symbolism referring to virtues of an ideal marriage during the fifteenth century. The young woman's portrait contains symbols of chastity (the unicorn) and fertility (the rabbits), virtues that were important for a Renaissance woman to possess. After decoding the symbolism in these portraits, we can learn what was important to these people and how they wanted to be remembered.

We also can compare artwork, which provides different perspectives, and gives us a well-rounded way of looking at events, situations, and people. By analyzing artworks from the past and looking at their details, we can rewind time and experience what a time period different from our own was like.

Looking at art from the past contributes to who we are as people. By looking at what has been done before, we gather knowledge and inspiration that contribute to how we speak, feel, and view the world around us.

Related Links
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: Portrait of a Man, possibly Matteo di Sebastiano di Bernardino Gozzadini; and Portrait of a Woman, possibly Ginevra d'Antonio Lupari Gozzadini
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History: "Paintings of Love and Marriage in the Italian Renaissance"

What do you think we can learn from looking at works of art from the past?

We welcome your responses to this question below.


  • Maxine says:

    Studying art from the past is indeed very important for the historical and cultural view of a country. Without art, there wouldn't have been the Renaissance along with the rest of the artistic movements from the previous civilizations. Studying art from the past helps us understand the evolution of a country or why it changed when it did. Art helps a society evolve in its own way, which is why there are different styles of art in different countries. Without art, there wouldn't be any visual representations of the past, which means that people might have doubts because art can be reviewed as historical evidence for how people lived in the past.

    Posted: March 12, 2012, 10:10 p.m.

  • Madeleine says:

    Dear Kristen,

    Artworks from the past reveal the importance of religion for individuals living at the time as religion dominated many Europeans’ lives, even if not everyone held the same beliefs. Even though many people are still very religiously active and involved today, it is nothing compared to the dedication and importance of what religion meant to so many different people in sixteenth-seventeenth century Europe. Featuring one’s religious devotion was also a question of culture, knowledge and pride for many patrons. The importance of religion in the past is clearly depicted for me through the artwork Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, which was completed by Raphael in 1504. Four saints, St. Peter, St. Catherine, St. Paul and St. Cecilia (along with their symbols), accompanied the Madonna and Child. Since this painting alone holds much power in the room at the museum, one can imagine how proud and dignified the Nuns of the small convent of San’Antonio must of felt to own such a majestic and grandiose work of art!

    Posted: March 14, 2012, 10:03 p.m.

  • MMA Teens says:

    @Maxine: Thank you very much for your comment! I love what you said about how art can influence and impact civilizations. Thank you for reading our blog and letting us know what you think!

    Posted: March 15, 2012, 1:46 p.m.

  • Rebecca says:

    If, as the proverb claims, "a picture is worth a thousand words", a work of art is undoubtedly worth much more. Everything from the color scheme, to the subject, to the techniques used are manipulable by the artist himself; therefore, they all reflect so much on the period during which it was produced. To add on to what Madeleine discussed about the artwork entitled Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints by Rafael, the importance of religion, which was being questioned at that time, is well illustrated in this piece due to the chosen subject. The choice of techniques also shed light on another dimension of the Renaissance: the sort of 'rebirth' Europe experienced. By using new techniques such as mannerism and chiarascuro (the creation of a strong contrast between light and dark) the artists' managed to depart from the methods used during the Dark Ages which they deemed barbaric and to transition to a sort of return of Latin and Greek ideals. Evidently, to analyze works of art from the past is to discover a different society as they reflect so much on their historical context.

    Posted: March 15, 2012, 6:41 p.m.

  • Vanda says:

    Every piece of art reveals significant insights into the period of time it represents. This evidence allows people to further more understand certain aspects of life. In Raphael’s Madonna and Child Enthroned with Saints, the artist’s composition and colors reveal shed light on the culture that produced it. These types of idealistic arts can truly show the characteristics and information about the painted figures; for example age, class and religious beliefs are portrayed in Raphael’s work. This painting confirms the importance of religion at this time, as the saints are depicted praying. Paintings such as this one keep history alive and people curious as they remind the public about the past cultures. Raphael accomplishes to hold clues of 16th century life in this religious painting, evoking the previously mentioned aspects. As viewers are drawn to pieces like this one, it enriches their historical knowledge, inducing them to have more reasons why to study art from the past. Personally, the vivid colors and the interesting composition really drew me to this art piece as it stood out next to the others.

    Posted: March 15, 2012, 7:40 p.m.

  • Théo says:

    Dear Kristen,
    To build a better future, we have to understand our past. Art is a powerful way to transmit a message to future generations. Art represents the works and the habits of earlier population; it gives us a picture of people's behaviors, certain beliefs of a civilization and their mores while enabling historians to have a better understanding of a certain epoch. A work of art different from a work of literature provides perfect details and some hidden messages; in opposite literature work let our imagination explain us the history. For example, the painting of Mantegna, Adoration of the Sepherds, shows us the mores of the peasants, how they were dressed and also their faith.

    Posted: March 15, 2012, 9:02 p.m.

  • Tristan says:

    Dear Kristen,
    Looking at works of art from the past serves as a peep hole to the culture of the time, not only the historical period itself and what was on people’s minds at the time, but also how that period was absorbing its own history and pushing forward, breaking through new frontiers. By walking through this exhibit on Renaissance portraits at the Metropolitan, one walks through a cultural period and sees how it evolved not only in the arts, but in the fields of philosophy (with the humanists), of architecture, and sculpture, science and economics. The subjects of the paintings depart from purely religious subjects (of Madonna and child) to domestic subjects like this one, of a husband a wife; they evolve from pure gold backgrounds to backgrounds with one-point perspective where everyday life is depicted (with horses, donkeys, villages and business taking place on a far away river). This painting tells us a lot about how people at the time were valuing personal relationships as importantly as their relationship to God. Thank you, Kristen, for sharing the symbolism that exists in this domestic scene, and that helps us see how this period is one of transition.

    Posted: March 18, 2012, 9:16 p.m.

  • Capucine says:

    As time goes by, history may be distorted. Although we have the written word to testify to the events that took place centuries ago, art is very important as a means to confirm such history and give us additional insight about the events at the time. A painting, a mosaic, or a sculpture are all some of the many types of works of art that can help shape an image of what society was like at the time of their creation. A historian may discuss the significant events of the past, but will most likely not mention the garments worn by people at such events. Art therefore gives us an entirely different perspective on history. Furthermore, artistic movements recognizable in paintings are often a direct consequence of political, social or religious movements that had preceded them. For example, in his Crucifixion, Fra Angelico uses perspective, a new concept in the early Renaissance. Thus, this painting helps define the passage from the Middle Ages to the Italian Renaissance. It is useful to study art because each work of art helps define, in some way, a milestone in history.

    Posted: March 19, 2012, 11:34 p.m.

  • Kristen says:

    Thank you guys for contributing! You brought up some really great points and really expanded on what I was saying. I loved seeing the different aspects of past art's importance that you guys focused on! While I was reading your comments I began to think about how art also tends to be better preserved than other artifacts because of its beauty. Which is great considering how important it is to history. Also, I thought it was important to also mention the role bias plays in art, especially portraits. I hope you all got a chance to see the two sculptures of the same man in the portrait exhibition, and observe how details changed from the practice sculpture to the final. It's a perfect example of how art can be changed. While this bias does exist, it doesn't necessarily make art any less valuable as a way to study history because we can look at the changes made. Often if something was changed it was because people preferred it a certain way, which can tell a lot about a culture, time period, etc.

    Posted: March 21, 2012, 6:42 p.m.

  • Will says:

    Dear Kristen,

    Great post and great comments. I would like to add a resource for anyone reading this post who is interested in studying Art History at university. I recently graduated with a masters degree is art history at Richmond University in London. Their Art History and Visual Culture postgraduate degree is your preparatory step towards a research degree and/or a qualification for employment in the visual arts:


    Posted: October 18, 2012, 11:15 a.m.

  • Mr. LaCrosse says:

    This is a great site and I will recommend it to my art history students!

    Posted: April 22, 2013, 3:28 p.m.

  • Kristen says:

    Thank you! I really appreciate everyone viewing and interacting with my blog post and the teen blog. We are all very grateful that you will spread the word and get more people involved!

    Posted: April 30, 2013, 9:45 a.m.

  • suleyman mishary says:

    It good and important to what happen by the time we are not there

    Posted: February 23, 2015, 4:12 p.m.

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About the Author

Kristen is a member of the Museum's Teen Advisory Group.

About this Blog

This blog, written by the Metropolitan Museum's Teen Advisory Group (TAG) and occasional guest authors, is a place for teens to talk about art at the Museum and related topics.