Durham University
Programme and Module Handbook

Undergraduate Programme and Module Handbook 2023-2024 (archived)

Module CLAS2811: Dialogues with Antiquity: The Classical Past in the Visual Arts from the Middle Ages to Modernity

Department: Classics and Ancient History

CLAS2811: Dialogues with Antiquity: The Classical Past in the Visual Arts from the Middle Ages to Modernity

Type Open Level 2 Credits 20 Availability Available in 2023/24 Module Cap Location Durham


  • CLAS1301 or VISU1012 or HIST1041. The module develops skills acquired in CLAS1701 and CLAS1781, but these modules are not required.


  • None

Excluded Combination of Modules

  • None


  • To develop students' understanding of the classical tradition through the medium of visual culture;
  • To develop the depth and sophistication of their approach to art history, in particular painting, sculpture, and architecture;
  • To extend their awareness of European engagements with the ancient world at later periods, from the Middle Ages to the twentieth century;
  • To enable students to think analytically and critically about key issues and debates regarding the reception of classical Roman culture.
  • To prepare students for the final-year dissertation who may wish to work on areas of classical reception or visual culture by providing them with key skills in this area and in organising a research project.


  • From the twelfth century of the Christian era, if not earlier, there were deliberate efforts to identify and come to terms with the cultural legacy of classical antiquity, which are recognisable to us today in art and architecture and which led to a prolonged and never-ending engagement by modernity with the classical past. This module studies the impact and uses of classical mythological and historical traditions and the forms and ideologies of classical art and architecture on Europe through examples from across the period c. 1100 to c. 1960. It examines the breadth and depth of encounters with classical culture by artists, architects, patrons and intellectuals over this period, considering the intersection with contemporary debates about the future of the past and about the historical foundation of the present and the future. It focuses on the memory, reception and reinterpretation of, the responses to, and the dialogue with the classical inheritance through the material culture of late medieval and early modern Europe, considering case studies from a range of periods both in terms of conventional art-historical methodologies and in the light of a range of modern critical theory about the reception of the past. Individual lectures focus on the principal protagonists whose work reflects significant responses to the classical world in their respective art-historical periods. Seminars facilitate further, in-depth discussion of leading theorists on classical antiquity such as Giorgio Vasari and Johann Joachim Winckelmann, or of the most active exponents in the rendering of classical art, such as Titian. As a Level 2 survey course, the module provides an overview of responses to antiquity in different media (painting, sculpture, architecture) and at different epochs, which offers the critical tools and broad historical knowledge required for more detailed research work in any specific topic in this area for the Dissertation at Level 3, as well as building towards the specialised Level 3 module in classical reception, CLAS3581..

Learning Outcomes

Subject-specific Knowledge:
  • A broad overview and specific knowledge of the main examples of engagement with antiquity across this period in material culture, especially painting, sculpture, architecture;
  • A critical awareness of the theory and practice of classical reception studies as a means not only of identifying the significance of antiquity for later western cultures, but also of unpeeling the layers of meaning of the ancient world itself;
  • An analytical understanding of specific works of medieval and later painting, sculpture and architecture, using art-historical methodologies, and of how these works interact with one another and with the classical past and how coherent or fragmented are their views and responses to classical culture.
Subject-specific Skills:
  • An ability to engage critically with medieval and later paintings, sculptures and buildings and their relation to the artefacts, histories, and mythologies of the classical past;
  • An ability to understand, and engage with, diverse cultural approaches to the ancient world;
  • An ability to synthesize, interpret and evaluate a wide range of primary and secondary source material;
  • Confidence in handling and deploying basic art-historical methodologies and modern critical approaches in the field of classical reception;
  • Reflective awareness of the reception and reinterpretation of the classical past by modern cultures;
  • Competence in conducting self-directed primary research, using post-classical sources.
Key Skills:
  • An ability to construct a well-articulated, well-researched and well-balanced argument in written form with evidence of sophisticated thinking;
  • A capacity to approach the material culture of a range of historical periods with critical thinking and independent judgement showing awareness of alternative points of view;
  • An ability to organize an extensive research project and formulate appropriate research questions;
  • A capacity to appraise critically the relationship between classical antiquity and later visual culture;
  • Information technology skills, including word-processing and the use of electronic resources including relevant databases.

Modes of Teaching, Learning and Assessment and how these contribute to the learning outcomes of the module

  • Lectures form the core of the module, presenting factual information and modern critical approaches as models for interpretative procedures in the interpretation of material culture. Corresponding to this core is a 70% examination component.
  • Seminars are used to give students practice in analysing the dialogues with classical culture evidenced in key later works of material culture and in manipulating important theoretical approaches to classical reception, as well as providing an opportunity to talk through areas of difficulty.
  • Project workshops are used to support preparation for the formative and summative assignments, in particular to facilitate the organization of data for the Research Project and to provide opportunities for independent learning and study in a controlled environment. In addition, electronic feedback on formative and summative assessments is provided individually to students on DUO.
  • An optional field trip, where feasible, to a site of importance for the reception of classical art in the vicinity of Durham will provide an opportunity for first-hand experience of works of art and to engage directly with the issues explored in the course.
  • Formative assessment takes the form of (1) one commentary (1,000 words), which provides the opportunity to examine in detail the dialogue of a specific work of medieval or early modern material culture with the classical past and to test out critical approaches in art history and classical reception theory with regard to this example, and (2) one project plan (1,000 words), which offers an opportunity to plan the summative research project showing a strategy for formulation of research questions, independent research and a more developed engagement with modern critical approaches.
  • Summative assessment consists of (1) a written case study, constituting 80% of the summative assessment, on a work of medieval, early modern or modern material culture (painting, sculpture, or architecture), which tests the students’ ability to locate, exploit and discuss primary sources available to them and to apply and converse with modern critical approaches in art history and reception theory in order to identify and understand better the nature of the encounter with classical culture which that work represents; and (2) an oral presentation (or equivalent, as agreed by the module convenor, in accordance with requirements approved by DUAC), constituting 20% of the summative assessment, testing students’ understanding of the breadth of the module, beyond the subject of their case study, involving either a commentary on a specific work of painting, sculpture, or architecture, or a discussion of relevant issues evident in a range of works, which will in each case provide an opportunity to demonstrate their awareness and grasp of a diversity of critical approaches to classical reception. In order to ensure adequate breadth of coverage, the topic chosen must cover a different period (1100-1600 OR 1600-2023) and/or a different medium (painting/sculpture/architecture) from that covered in the Research Project. (e.g. If the research project is on a work of sculpture from the period 1100-1600, the oral presentation or equivalent should be either on a work from the period 1600-2023 or on a work of painting or architecture from either period.)

Teaching Methods and Learning Hours

Activity Number Frequency Duration Total/Hours
Lectures 18 Twice weekly in Michaelmas Term 1 hour 18
Seminars 6 6 in Michaelmas Term 1 hour 6
Tutorials 2 2 in Michaelmas Term 1 hour 2
Field Trip (optional) 1 1 in Easter Term 8 hours 8
Preparation & Reading 166
Total 200

Summative Assessment

Component: Research Project Component Weighting: 80%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Research Project 4000 words 100% Yes
Component: Oral Presentation Component Weighting: 20%
Element Length / duration Element Weighting Resit Opportunity
Oral presentation (or equivalent) 5 minutes (this can be increased to 10 minutes if numbers of registered students permit student presentations to be timetabled within the classes) 100% Yes

Formative Assessment:

One Formative Exercise

Attendance at all activities marked with this symbol will be monitored. Students who fail to attend these activities, or to complete the summative or formative assessment specified above, will be subject to the procedures defined in the University's General Regulation V, and may be required to leave the University