Fundamental Principles of Art History at Nyack College


The Department of Art History emphasizes five fundamental principles: visual attentiveness, visual literacy, critical interpretation, art as visual theology, and art as a medium of prophetic transformation.

Visual Attentiveness:The engagement of the art object begins with a careful study of its visual and material elements. Our department’s content-oriented method places an emphasis on the visual evidence of the art object itself. The rigorous scrutiny of the art object grounds the art historian’s reading of the work’s form and content.

Visual Literacy:Works of art communicate through a visual language. This language has a vocabulary (iconography) and grammar (formal structure and technical methods) that has developed across the history of art. Each artist, working within their cultural-historical-religious context, inherits and expands a language of art. Our department emphasizes the importance of developing strong visual literacy skills as the basis for critical interpretation.

Critical Interpretation:As carriers of meaning, works of art are open to a range of interpretations, limited by the visual evidence of the object. Our department encourages students to critically engage the work of art’s visual elements (including formal structure, iconography, and technical methods) as meaningful. Students and scholars contextualize the work of art’s original historical, cultural, and religious significance as well as investigate its capacity to address the modern viewer. A content-oriented method of art history is not an open license to speculation or subjective personal interpretations. Scholarly readings must be grounded in the evidence of the art object and the product of research.

Art as Visual Theology: In most cultures, works of art have been employed as carriers of sacred meaning and objects of religious function. Our department highlights the rich, diverse, and sometimes controversial history of Christianity and the visual arts. Since the third century, Christians have employed the visual arts as a means of making their faith tangible. The Christian church has been one of the principal patrons of the visual arts. Christianity’s contribution to the history of art lies in part in the fact that, at many different historical and cultural contexts, artists have employed the visual arts to express their faith in the visual language of their own time. The principles of Christian faith have provided the theological foundation for much of Western art; even works that are not overtly religious in their subjects are sacramental in their union of content and form. Our department recognizes that works of art extend this rich cultural history into the future.

Art as a Medium of Prophetic Transformation:Proceeding from the union of content and form, the work of art has the potential to move the viewer to personal, social, and spiritual transformation. Our department explores the capacity of the work of art, as a living presence with the viewer, to affect the viewer. Works of art further a common experience of the human condition, its aspirations, limitations, hopes, fears, beliefs, and doubts, across the divides of historical and cultural differences. As a materialization of the immaterial and the visible manifestation of the invisible, the work of art is a carrier of transformative power that may be an agent of grace made tangibly present.