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NCEA Level 3 Art History 91483 (3.2) — page of


Art History 91483 (3.2): Examine how meanings are communicated through art works

Assessment Criteria


Achievement with Merit

Achievement with Excellence

Examine involves explaining the meanings and how these are conveyed through the features of art works. It is the connection between the meanings and how they are conveyed that is the key focus.

Examine in depth involves providing a coherent and considered explanation of the meanings and how the meanings are conveyed through the features of art works.

Examine perceptively involves explaining how and why meanings are constructed and conveyed through the features of art works, with reference to relevant contextual factors.

Evidence Statement

Expected coverage Question One – Italian Renaissance

Selected art works:

    Plate 1 – Masaccio, Enthroned Madonna, 1426

    Plate 2 – Botticelli, Madonna del Magnificat, 1481

Example of Achievement level response:

The Enthroned Madonna was a popular subject in Italian Renaissance art and you can find examples in all parts of Renaissance Italy including Venice, Rome, and Florence. The two works I have selected are typical of this subject because Mary is sitting on a throne in both pictures. The throne shows how important Mary was and that she was like the Queen of Heaven. She is holding the baby Jesus because she was his mother, which was why she was so important. She has a proud face because she knows she is the mother of Jesus and has become the Queen of Heaven. In Botticelli's painting, someone is holding a crown over her head to show Mary is the Queen of Heaven. The angels in the two pictures make it look like Mary is in heaven. The two angels in the front of Masaccio's painting are playing music, which shows what a heavenly place it is.

Example of Merit level response:

The Enthroned Madonna motif was used to show the important role of the Virgin Mary who had been chosen by God to give birth to Jesus. She was chosen because she was a perfect human being and she was without sin when she died so she was taken straight up to heaven to sit beside Jesus and help him – like a queen on earth helps her husband, the king. The throne, which Mary sits on in these paintings, is based on the thrones used by earthly rulers so people in the Renaissance would recognise that she was a Queen. Masaccio's painting has a gilded background because gold was used to create a heavenly vision and this helped to convey the idea that paintings of the Enthroned Madonna were a vision of the Virgin Mary's eternal role as the Queen of Heaven. Botticelli's painting does not have a golden background; instead it has a beautiful earthly landscape that can be linked to the throne and the crown in the painting to show that Mary is Queen of earthly things as well as heavenly ones.

Example of Excellence level response:

The motif of the Enthroned Madonna was popular in Byzantine art, which was dominated by the need for iconic images for use in orthodox church rituals. The Enthroned Madonna was venerated as the theotokos or Mother of God who sits on the right hand of Jesus in heaven. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Italio-Byzantine artists like Cimabue produced monumental, austere Enthroned Madonnas, which hung above the altars of Italian churches. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Italian religious teachers like St Francis and St Dominic placed increasing emphasis on the role of the Virgin Mary in Christian stories and ritual. This led to a strong cult of Mariolatry in the Italian Renaissance church, which stimulated the production of images of the Virgin Mary that tried to convey a sense of her duality as both an ideal human mother and a deeply spiritual being. Masaccio's Enthroned Madonna combines this new naturalism with traditional hieratic scale and gold decoration. His image of Mary is much more naturalistic than fourteenth century images like the Ruccellai Madonna. By the late fifteenth century, Roman Catholic doctrine increasingly emphasised the role of Mary as an ideal mother. This was conveyed by more naturalistic images of Mary and an emphasis on her nurturing qualities as is seen in the tender downward look of Botticelli's Mary. The new emphasis on Mary's humanity led to the use of landscape as a background to depict Enthroned Madonnas, and a rejection of the iconic golden backgrounds. Botticelli's idealised landscape can be seen to convey several layers of meaning, including the provision of a glimpse of the ideal world that is heaven and a vision of the ideal world possible on earth if Christian principles are observed.

Expected coverage Question Two – Italian Renaissance

Selected art works:

    Plate 3 – Raphael, Galatea, 1513

    Plate 4 – Michelangelo, David, c1501–04

Example of Achievement level response:

These two art works both use classical imagery but they have very different meanings. David was the patron saint of Florence and this statue was put up in the town square to show the people that even though they were just a small state they could beat bigger ones just like David did with his slingshot. You can see the slingshot in the statue's left hand on his shoulder. David is nude to show that he was a hero and this is another classical symbol that Michelangelo used to help the people feel that they can be heroic too.

Raphael’s mythological painting is about love and beauty and it is partly about how beautiful women are, especially nude ones. It shows Galatea standing on a shell, which means triumph or the birth of Venus. She is beautiful and nearly nude like classical sculptures and she holds reins that are tied to two dolphins that are pulling her away. The little Cupids in the sky are firing arrows at the couple on the left to make them fall in love because Cupid was the helper of Venus, the goddess of love.

Example of Merit level response:

Although both of my selected paintings use classical imagery the meanings they convey are very different. Michelangelo's earlier work uses classical iconography to inspire the people of Florence to support their leaders and help Florence be a strong state even though it was so small. The heroic nude form of the larger than life-size statue provided the citizens of Florence of an image of the ideal man and citizen. With his restrained pose and classical expression, David is presented as a Florentine hero.

The meanings conveyed by Raphael’s painting could be seen as more sensual and less heroic. Raphael's composition brings together Greek gods and goddesses, nymphs and sea creatures, in a decorative composition that seems to celebrate human enjoyment. Some people have even said that the Galatea was modelled on a famous Roman prostitute however others says she is an ideal figure who personifies platonic love and this is shown by her gaze up into the sky or heaven. Both of these meanings work in the context of the work – the Farnese Palace.

Example of Excellence level response:

By the middle of the fifteenth century, the use of classical imagery had become common in Italian art. Crumbling Roman ruins were used to symbolise the end of paganism in works like Piero della Francesca's Resurrection and Pollauiolo's Martyrdom of St Sebastian; Botticelli used a classical Venus to convey Neo-Platonist meanings in the Birth of Venus. Michelangelo’s sculpture uses a classical depiction of a Biblical figure to indicate the long tradition of heroism, which was a feature of both classical and Christian philosophies. The intellectual environment of Renaissance Italy appreciated the ways in which this classical imagery help to synthesise Christian and classical philosophies and this led to Pope Julius commissioning the classical and Christian works in the Stanza della Segnatura.

The themes of Galatea are somewhat less heroic and more sensuous and represent another reason for the increasing popularity of classical imagery in private decorative schemes in the sixteenth century. The popularity of classical imagery seems to develop first in Venice where artists like Titian and Veronese used classical imagery in decorative paintings and schemes for wealthy patrons, like the Barbaro brothers and the Doges themselves. Eventually this fashion moved into wider Italy. By the sixteenth century this sensuous imagery became a major characteristic of the hedonistic baroque style, which succeeded the Renaissance.

Expected coverage Question Three – Modernism

Selected art works:

    Plate 5 – Vassily Kandinsky, All Saints Day I, 1911

    Plate 6 – Constantin Brancusi, Sleeping Muse, 1910

Example of Achievement level response:

Kandinsky's painting is very abstract and he used abstract brush strokes and colours to convey the idea of spiritual things you can't see. Kandinsky was a theosophist and didn't believe in God like Christians did, instead he believed in an invisible god in the fourth dimension and you can see this in all the swirling colours. There are still things in this painting and right near the centre you can see bits of a building and it looks as if it has a cross on it so it could be a church.

Brancusi's sculpture is shaped like an egg because it is an old symbol to do with birth and new life and eternity. The egg has a stylised face on it and some black marks that look a bit like hair. The face and shining bronze make it look like the face of a Buddha and this makes it look spiritual.

Example of Merit level response:

Both Kandinsky and Brancusi are famous for helping to develop abstract art and these works are good examples of the way they used a mixture of abstract and non-abstract features in their art to convey spiritual meanings. Kandinsky has combined visible forms like a church with his abstract splashes of colour to create a work about the mystical and contemplative aspects of religion, especially theosophy that was popular then. Kandinsky thought that colour and abstract forms were universal and so that this work would appeal to anyone and would have a spiritual meaning for everyone. Brancusi is also trying to make a work about theosophy and that is why he used features from the Buddha because it conveys the idea of Buddhist meditation instead of Christian prayer. The face has its eyes closed, which helps to convey the idea that spirituality is a personal thing and doesn't need to be in a church. It also conveys universal ideas because it is an eastern form, which has been made in Europe.

Example of Excellence level response:

In this period, the use of abstract imagery to convey spiritual themes reflects changing religious ideas in the western world. The traditional human-centric imagery used in Christian art as recently as late nineteenth century Pre-Raphaelite works like Ecce Homo was challenged by the new religious ideas coming from the east. Colonisation in Asia had brought Europeans into contact with the Buddhist religion with its more abstract concepts of enlightenment and nirvana. Brancusi's sculpture uses Buddhist imagery to invoke a meditative spirituality rather than the direct supplication invoked by Christian icons and devotional works.

Both artists belonged to the Theosophist movement, a new cult that sought to identify common features of world religions and create a new form of religious worship, which was not tied to institutions like churches. Kandinsky intended his abstract Compositions and Impressions to provide viewers with the instinctive, pure association with the divine that theosophists believed to be part of non-Christian spiritual beliefs. On the other hand, Brancusi drew upon eastern sources for imagery, which related to the more mystical, meditative aspects of theosophy in his series of muses and birds which have simplified, pure forms that were inspired by Buddhist and Indian art works of Buddha and mandala.

Expected coverage Question Four – Modernism

Selected art works:

    Plate 7 – Max Beckmann, The Night, 1918

    Plate 8 – Salvador Dali, Soft Construction with Boiled Beans, 1936

Example of Achievement level response:

Beckmann's picture is about human violence and it is full of angry faces in distorted poses. In the centre someone is holding someone else’s bandaged arm and in the front there is a back view of a woman who is tied up and her legs are stretched out so she looks as if she is being tortured. The colours, red and brown and white, also make it look violent and it looks as if it is a building that is falling apart with the roof pressing down on everyone.

The real violent thing in Dali's painting is the large figure, which seems to have been stretched apart and has a very painful look on the face. You get the feeling that the figure has been cut about and the face looks as if it is pain. The arms and legs seem to be fighting against one another and the damage is all over the land and all of this makes it look violent.

Example of Merit level response:

This was a very violent time in Europe and both artists knew it. Beckmann's painting shows the violence that people do to one another and shows that there was lots of fighting and lots of people had operations because of their wounds. Beckmann's colour makes it look gritty and real ­– a bit like a newspaper photograph, and you really think you are there with the noise all around and the smell of the dead and everything. The tangled, distorted bodies make you feel the violence and it is very sad.

Dali's painting also makes me feel sad and scared. The figure is pulling itself apart and that was what was happening in Dali's country and it made him angry and sad. He shows the figure squeezing the breast hard (which would really hurt); the figure can't help the people of the land, which is low and empty showing that there is nothing left. The fighting has left everyone weak and a lot of death has made the land empty like it looks in the painting.

Example of Excellence level response:

The violence in these two art works reflect the insecurity and instability of Europe in the early twentieth century. While it is possible to relate each of these works to particularly violent events – the Spanish Civil War and World War 1, one can also relate the violent, disjointed imagery in each work to general insecurities such as economic depression, nationalism, and new psychological theories. Dali's image of a figure tearing itself apart can now be seen as a motif which embodies the effects of Spain's civil war however it can also be seen as a vivid image of the two world wars which destroyed much of Europe in the first half of the twentieth century.

Beckmann's painting is said to depict an emergency medical centre in the battlefields of World War 1 however it can also be seen as a general, allegorical image of torture and mental suffering. This is in keeping with the exploration of mental suffering by other German Expressionists such as Heckel and Kirchner in images like Madmen (Heckel) or Schmidt-Rottluff's depiction of Jesus wearing the crown of thorns, which use dislocation and violence to explore the impact of Nietzschean philosophy on modern man.

Expected coverage Question Five – Beyond Modernism

Selected art works:

    Plate 9 – Audrey Flack, Marilyn (Vanitas), 1977

    Plate 10 – Robyn Kahukiwa, Taranga, 1982

Example of Achievement level response:

Audrey's Flack's still life is about identity on many levels. The most obvious is that of Marilyn Monroe who is shown in two images within the painting. Marilyn committed suicide when she was young and she is seen as an example of a modern celebrity who lost her sense of identity as she became famous. Underneath her public face, which was glamorous like these pictures, was a sad depressed woman who was not comfortable with her identity.

Robyn Kahukiwa explores Māori and female identity in her work. The foreground figure stands staunch above the small figure of a baby, which conveys ideas about motherhood and family identity. These ideas are also conveyed by the sleeping face that has a baby in her hair in the upper bit of the painting. These motifs explore female identity as a mother while other motifs like the silhouetted haka bring up Māori identity.

Example of Merit level response:

Ideas about identity became popular subjects for art in the late twentieth century and these two paintings explore some of the most important ideas. Both painters are exploring feminist ideas of identity. Flack's still life shows make-up and jewels and other things that women use to make themselves look beautiful like Marilyn Monroe. In this way she shows how celebrities create identities, which are copied by ordinary people, and that actresses like her created false identities that were not real. Ordinary women might use make-up and necklaces like this to create a false identity that is all about appearances.

Robyn Kahukiwa's work has a theme of female strength and she seems to be telling us that women hold the world together and through them generations are connected together. The Māori motifs and the haka clearly show that this is about Māori traditions and the sleeping woman seems to be identified with the mountain, which shows that Māori identity comes from the land.

Example of Excellence level response:

Audrey Flack is associated with the American feminist movement because works like Vanitas explored issues about female identity. In the 1970s, the women's liberation movement challenged traditional western attitudes to women. Flack's work is particularly concerned with the manipulation of female appearance to satisfy the male gaze. The make-up and jewellery, which surround the images of Marilyn, were used by women to construct appearances and identities to reflect the constructed reality presented by celebrities like Marilyn Monroe. As women moved into the workforce more women began lecturing in art and encouraged the exploration of traditional female roles as part of the female search for equal rights and pay. Other artists like Miriam Schapiro explored similar themes.

Kahukiwa is a New Zealand Māori artist who has produced many works that explore both Māori and female identity. The Māori rights movement, which emerged in New Zealand in the 1970s, can be seen as part of a wave of post-colonial theory and action, which challenged western domination. This movement is closely connected with what is sometimes described as the Māori renaissance in arts which followed the success of Te Māori exhibition in New York. Many of Kahukiwa's works, like this one, use images of Māori women and children to emphasise Māori whakapapa and connections with the land.

Expected coverage Question Six – Beyond Modernism

Selected art works:

    Plate 11 – Ludwig Mies Van der Rohe, Seagram Building, 1958

    Candidate’s choice – Frank Gehry, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, 1998

Example of Achievement level response:

Both of these buildings are about wealth and consumerism because they shine in the light like a heap of gold or jewels or other expensive stuff. The Seagram building is in the city but it has room for a garden and fountains that show they are rich because otherwise they couldn’t afford it. The straight lines of the building look like the columns in an account book too.

Gehry's building is a bit over the top with its shiny walls and big curving bits which must have cost a lot to make. It is very big and its size also makes it look rich and whoever built it seems to want us to look at it and know that they have lots of money.

Example of Merit level response:

A whisky company built the Seagram Building as their head office; having a building named after your product showed that you were a very successful company. It was also a way of advertising your products everyday to the people of the city. The gold-tinted windows of this building obviously symbolised money as well as the colour of whiskey in the glass. The shimmering gold sides would make the consumer think of a glass of whiskey and encourage them to consume their products.

Gehry's museum, Guggenheim Museum Bilbao, is selling an experience and art. The building was commissioned by the very wealthy Guggenheim family as an art museum in Spain to encourage tourists to come to this place. The building is very unusual and pictures of it have spread all over the world and this has made people want to come and see it and spend money in it. The unusual shape of the building has been influenced by space technology and it suggests that the experience of going inside is out of this world so people will spend a lot of money to travel to Bilbao to experience it for themselves.

Example of Excellence level response:

As Philip Johnson said – “Mies means money”. Money and consumerism were popular themes in art in the second half of the twentieth century because western society had become extremely materialistic and consumerist. The expensive materials and shiny glass surfaces of International style buildings, like the Seagram Building, embodied the new slick world of financial dealing and profit taking. Clustered together in the growing Central Business Districts of first world cities’ glass towers symbolised a new glittering world of money associated with power. Art buying and selling had become part of the modern world of investment and many artists and critics drew attention to this process.

The innovative, glittering Guggenheim Museum with its free-form dream like shape, promises visitors a unique experience that can only be experienced by those who can afford to travel out of the way, to the city. The uniqueness of the design clearly demonstrates the close relationship between art, money and consumerist spending today. It stands out as a tourist trophy or photo opportunity, along with the Sydney Opera House and the Eiffel Tower – consumerist images to be collected by those who have the money to travel.

Marking criteria (applies to all questions)

Not Achieved


Achievement with Merit

Achievement with Excellence









No response; no relevant evidence.

Candidate describes TWO art works.

Candidate describes TWO art works and indicates some meaning.

Candidate describes the meanings conveyed by some features in TWO selected and identified art works.

Candidate explains the meanings conveyed through the features in TWO selected and identified art works.

Candidate provides a considered explanation of the meanings conveyed by the features in TWO selected and identified art works.

Candidate provides a coherent and considered explanation of the meanings conveyed by the features in TWO selected and identified art works.

Candidate uses some relevant contextual information to support the explanation of the meanings conveyed by the features in TWO selected and identified art works, with reference to relevant contextual factors.

Candidate uses relevant contextual information to support the explanation of the meanings conveyed through the connections between the features of selected and identified art works.

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