Dacre 1Comparative Study: avoid the OBVIOUS!

Some artists and artworks are always popular choices with many students. I can guarantee that your Comparative Study examiner will see A LOT of student discussions and comparisons of Pop Art and Surrealist paintings. They are obvious and predictable.

So why not try thinking outside the box?

IBDP visual arts comparative study documentation says “Students are required to analyse and compare artworks, objects or artifacts by different artists. This independent critical and contextual investigation should explore artworks, objects and artifacts from differing cultural contexts…Students select artworks, objects and artifacts for comparison from differing cultural contexts that may have been produced across any of the art-making forms, and that hold individual resonance for the student and have relevance to their own artmaking practice. This is of particular importance to HL students”. (Guide page 35)

Dacre 2Victoria and Albert

I suspect that most students will focus their comparative study on artworks and ignore the “objects or artifacts” option, but a recent visit to the challengingly vast collection of “objects and artifacts” at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London, made me rethink this assumption.

The V&A is the world’s leading museum of art and design, housing a permanent collection of over 2.3 million objects that span over 5,000 years of human creativity. The Museum holds many of the UK’s national collections and houses some of the greatest resources for the study of architecture, furniture, fashion, textiles, photography, sculpture, painting, jewellery, glass, ceramics, book arts, Asian art and design, theatre and performance”.


That’s right – 2.3 MILLION objects. It’s HUGE.

The V&A was originally established in 1852, after the Great Exhibition the previous year. Its founding principle was to make works of art available to all, to educate working people and to inspire British designers and manufacturers.

Of course unless you happen to live near/in London or are in the UK a visit to the Victoria and Albert Museum may not be a practical idea, but if you do live near a museum I’d recommend a visit.


Your museum may not have 2.3 million objects – but it doesn’t need to. It just needs to have a few objects/artifacts that engage or inspire you. And the important fact is that you are seeing and exploring the REAL THING. Not looking at a screen to see something you found on the Internet.

The guide goes on to say that “it is valuable for students to have experienced at least one of the works in real time and space, such as a painting at a gallery, a sculpture in a park or an artifact from the local community that is brought into the school, although this is not essential”.

A Selection of Artifacts

I have included some photographs of three “objects or artifacts” seen at the V & A.

These include the four weird and wonderful Dacre Beasts (1507-1525) made during the reign of King Henry VIII (1509 – 1547). The four Dacre beasts come from a tradition of heraldic ornament, are unusual free standing, large-scale wooden heraldic sculptures from the English Renaissance and represent the Dacres – one of the most powerful families in northern England. They include a griffin, ram, bull and dolphin. The Dacre Beasts were probably made by unnamed local craftsmen from a single, large oak grown on the estate.

alterpiece 1I’ve also chosen the huge, beautiful and complex “Altarpiece of St George” (from about 1410), an altarpiece with panels that depict St George fighting the Dragon and the 1237 Battle of Puig. This large altarpiece is a fine example of the International Gothic Style in the first quarter of the 15th century.

“The altarpiece illustrates the legend of the St George, a Christian warrior saint, said to have lived at the end of the 3rd century. It is composed of 3 superimposed central panels surmounted by the Holy Spirit and Christ enthroned flanked by two prophets. On each side are depicted 10 scenes of the life of the saint, combining two different narrative cycles: the victory of St George against the dragon and the martyrdom of the saint while the predella panel illustrates 10 scenes of the passion of Christ”.


My third choice is St Peter, a carved figure from the 16th century that was originally brightly painted and would probably have been set in a church, on a console or ledge on one of the nave columns, with candles burning before it.

None of these artifacts is particularly well-known or famous but they are artistically and historically vital (and the altarpiece is stunning) and – best of all – available to be visited and scrutinized whenever I feel like it.

alterpiece st georgeDo you need links between the artifacts in your Comparative Study?

Well, you could have a more or less random selection of artworks.

It could still lead to a successful final upload. But it might make more sense to go down a more considered route, carefully selecting objects that already share some characteristics. This doesn’t need to be an obvious theme (e.g. landscape paintings, portraits etc) – but some kind of linked idea could still indicate to the examiner that you are taking this seriously and giving thought to the component.

For my selection I have a time line from the early 1400s (Altarpiece) to the 1500s (Dacre beasts and St Peter), and I’m looking at work that uses wood – carved, painted and gilded oak for the Dacre Beasts and carved for the St Peter, and tempera and gilt on pine panel for the altarpiece.

In addition to this medium the links are the late Middle Ages culture European time period, religion, heraldry and the medieval mind, and I suspect that this will be an unusual experience for the examiner (who may well be bored with all the Andy Warhols, Pablo Picassos, Salvador Dalis that he/she sees).

So forget the Internet don’t worry about art galleries – go visit a museum!

alterpiece battlePS Remember the importance of ACADEMIC HONESTY!

Every image used within the comparative study must be appropriately referenced to acknowledge the title, artist, date (where this information is known) and the source, following the protocol of the referencing style chosen by the school. When HL students include any images of their own original work, these must also be identified and acknowledged in the same way”. (Guide page 38)


I took all photographs of the three artifacts:

  • Dacre Beasts (Cumbria, England, 1507-1525, unknown artist, carved, painted and gilded oak).
  • Altarpiece of St George (Oil painting, Valencia, Spain, first quarter of the 15th century, artists “Master of the Centenar” and Marçal de Sas, Andrés, tempera and gilt on pine panel)
  • St. Peter (Holland, 16th century, carved oak, artist unknown)

st peter