Differing little in spelling but significantly in meaning from its double-N homophone “cannon,” “canon” comes from the Greek word kanōn, meaning a measuring rod, rule, or model. The term was first used within the context of Christianity to refer to the faith’s accepted guidelines and, later, to official, church-decreed regulations. As early as the fourth century A.D., the parts of the Bible that were considered to be the word of God were deemed to be of the canon, or canonical.
Over time, the concept of a canon expanded to a wide range of fields, from literature, film, and music to philosophy and even geography. Today, it generally refers to the established works, individuals, or theories that form the historical backbone of a particular discipline or genre. Spanning from antiquity through the contemporary era, canonized artworks are generally privileged in art history courses, museum exhibitions, and other art world institutions—venerated as exemplars of the movements they represent, and of art historical progression.
The canon has received its fair share of criticism for prioritizing Western art created by white males, with scholarly efforts emerging at the end of the 20th century to critically assess and broaden it. In addition to the overarching art historical canon, individual artistic movements or national traditions may be said to have their own canons.