Images of Power: Art as an Historiographic Tool

By Jeff Kinard
Guilford Technical Community College


Project Summary

Reflective Essay


Annotated List of Primary Sources


Project Summary

Images of Power: Art as an Historiographic Tool is an informal approach to teaching and learning history through the use of great artworks. The project uses images beginning with Paleolithic cave art through the early Christian era to provide insights into how earlier people lived and the motives that impelled them to create their art. Images guides the participant step-by-step through the illustrations in chronological order in an attempt to help the viewer achieve a working visual literacy that can be applied to understanding history. Images also encourages active participation to appreciate the social, political, and religious implications of the artworks.

This unit is designed to aid both instructors and students of western/world civilization surveys to understand past cultures through their art. The images presented here were chosen to illustrate how artworks and the written record complement one another in constructing a more complete understanding of the past. The traditional written record is an important tool for studying the past but in many cases it never existed, has been lost, or has survived only in fragments. Of course, in the case of prehistory we have only the archaeological and artistic legacies to study for clues. Artworks can thus fill in the missing gaps in the record or, in some cases, provide the only information available concerning certain eras. For the most part, however, artworks add the visual element so often necessary to make history come alive to us.

"Images of Power" utilizes the interpretation of artworks to show how history can be gleaned from visual and well as written sources. In the process it addresses the important themes of authority and status from the prehistoric through the early modern periods. Each piece has been chosen to explore how the artists consciously molded these themes into powerful propaganda tools for their patrons.

"Images of Power" attempts to guide the participant step-by-step through each image. This process is constructed to help the viewer achieve the working level of visual literacy essential in interpreting each piece's full message. In the process it should also become apparent that the appreciation of art--as well as the appreciation of history--requires active participation because creative interpretations can often lead to new understanding.

The complete image of each artwork is presented first and is accompanied by an introduction to its general artistic qualities, historical context, and purposes. This is followed by a series of details that focus on the individual symbols of authority that work in combination to make up the whole artwork.