On Medieval art and fanart and how people continue to fall for Renaissance anti-Medieval propaganda

So yesterday I was listening to the first episode of a brand new podcast, Alliance Public Radio: a podcast created by the SWTOR Writer’s Guild–players of the video game Star Wars the Old Republic who care a whole lot about the story/lore aspect of the game and create some amazing fanart & fanfiction. And yes, I eat this shit up.

Now, I’ve had vague plans in the works to compare medieval literature to Star Wars and to fandoms more generally (especially fanfiction) for a few years now, but this podcast, while being one of the most genuinely amazing things I’ve listened to in a while, made a medieval faux-pas. One of the worst, actually. You guessed it: it insinuated that the Renaissance was superior to the Middle Ages because… humanism and freedom of expression? So that’s what we are going to talk about today.

During a discussion of the headcannon of one of the speakers (that local and culturally diverse art and artifacts flourished in the Republic as opposed to the Empire, where there is relatively rampant thought policing and a drive to assimilate), one speaker says: “It’s kind of like that period during the Renaissance where people stopped painting old, fat rich dudes and started experimenting… Because before that was the only thing you could do! You wanted to be a painter, you either paint for the church and do some fan art, or you paint the old fat guy. That was your option! But, like, during the renaissance they were able to explore and you got all sorts of new forms of art.”

So this is very clearly wrong for approximately 95 reaons. Ok I exaggerate, but literally all of it is wrong. Let’s talk about why.

For starters, during what the fuck “period of the Renaissance” (which phrase in and of itself leaves me a bit baffled, but let’s assume that the speaker is referencing a specific decade or something within the period that self-defines as “Renaissance”) did they stop painting old, fat rich dudes? Because, actually, I seem to recall that painting old, fat rich dudes was a specialty of the Renaissance (which only became more prevalent in the baroque & ‘Englightenment’ eras and beyond) and not of the Middle Ages? Let’s see if I’m right…

Cesare Borgia, 1475-1507 — solidly Italian Renaissance, not old or fat but definitely rich…
King Francois I, 1494-1547 — this dude literally embodies French Renaissance. I think he’s fairly old in this pic, maybe not fat, but definitely rich.
King Henry VIII, 1491-1547 — I would say he brings around the “Renaissance”, as it were, in England. And he’s old, fat, and rich.
Pope Leo X, 1475-1521 — this dude is THE Renaissance pope. Old, fat, rich.

Alright, so that’s a lot of paintings of old, sometimes fat, rich dudes in the Renaissance across Western Europe. And this was.. you know… a thing in the Renaissance. Let’s see about medieval paintings…

So there’s… whatever this is. Looks like some monks (so, probably not rich, and probably fasting most of the time?).
And then there’s this… I dunno about you, but that dude certainly doesn’t look old with his boyish golden hair and rosy cheeks. Probably rich, from his clothing, but he ain’t fat.
And, you know, there’s always this kind of stuff. I dunno about what other people learn about Jesus, but he’s pretty much the definition of young, emaciated, and poor.

Right, so there are very clearly a lot more representations of old, fat rich men sitting in the same position in the Renaissance (and, fun fact, they also liked to paint medieval dudes like that in the Renaissance too–potential source of confusion?), whereas the Middle Ages was more of a paint young thin dudes encountering miracles, oh and also Jesus kind of time period. So, if anything, the Renaissance is when people really started painting old, fat rich dudes even though, apparently “they could be actually creative unlike those oppressive Dark Ages.”

The speaker also brought up specifically painting “for the church”, by which I assume they mean “painting religious scenes”. Now, they quite interestingly parallel that with fanart production of today’s fandoms, which is amazing and I definitely think that’s a worthwhile framework for thinking about medieval Christian art. But they quite incorrectly identify that method of art production with painting secular scenes (which we know now actually were not of old, fat rich men, quite the opposite in fact) and straight up state that this was compulsory. Uhm. There’s something wrong here. Not just historically, but with the metaphor.

You just can’t call something fanart, and then call it compulsory.

Seriously, tell me: is there a single person out there creating fanart because they have to? Because the powers-that-be demand that fans create art of and only of the characters and scenes from the fandoms they love? Literally no, that is not happening. Fanart is always a passion project. Good Omens fans draw comics of Aziraphale and Crowley being an adorable couple because they want to see that because they love the story and they love the Ineffable Husbands. Harry Potter fans draw POC Hermione because they love her and they want to create a visual of her the way they see her. SWTOR fans draw their original characters (oc’s) because they love them and they want to bring their personalities to life through art.

This is no different in the Middle Ages; especially since a lot of fanart actually derives from or is made in tandem with fanfictions! That’s not actually so different from the medieval method of writing/rewriting/translating/expanding romances like Lancelot, Tristan & Yseut, Perceval, or even saints lives over the centuries and across linguistic and geographical spaces, and then illuminating the manuscripts with miniatures of some of the scenes. Standalone fanart is not unlike medieval stained glass, for example, or frontispieces.

Seriously, someone tell me how this:

Canterbury Cathedral stained glass, Jesus dying on the cross

…is any different from this, ultimately:

Our girl Queen Amidala, link to source can be found here

The only real difference is that stained glass, for example, was placed in a physical space dedicated to the worship of the source of the art. But isn’t that more or less what tumblr is for fans? One of the many spaces dedicated to the “worship”, as it were, of the fandom? Isn’t that why people make the art and put it there? Because it’s a space for communal gathering and appreciation, of expression and telling and retelling and expanding the story in different ways?

There’s a terribly common misconception that the medieval Catholic Church forced people to create for her and her alone. Which implies 2 things: 1/ that secular romance was just… not paid attention to or appreciated and that’s… just so very not true? There was a vibrant secular culture that the Church borrowed from and gave to during the Middle Ages. And 2/ that people didn’t actually… believe in Christianity of their own free will; that they weren’t really faithful to the depths of their soul and that they would have preferred to direct their creative energy elsewhere which… is an incredibly wrong and frankly arrogant thing to assume? Who are we do decide for medieval people what they may or may not have preferred just because today we don’t share those same beliefs and most of us would have to be forced to create for the Church? It’s an incredibly narrow and intolerant view to have, that the Church forced everyone to create according to her rules for, like, 1000 years. Well, really, more than 1000 years because–and here we come to my final point…..

Lo! creation of Christian fanart did not stop with the “end” of the Middle Ages and the dawn of humanism! Observe:

Big famous Renaissance painting that faces the Mona Lisa in the Louvre. Look, there’s Jesus transforming water into wine.
Italian Renaissance painting of Jesus’ entombment. That’s some pious ass shit if you ask me
Antonio Alligeri, 1489-1534, that’s our girl Mary holding baby Jesus in a Renaissance rendition of the following…
In case anyone has forgotten the Sistine fucking Chapel

So, yea, lot’s of Renaissance Catholic fanart happening, because people were really into Jesus and his gang. They just also happened to be painting things like this as well:

Birth of Venus… hum… that’s still religous fanart, though, isn’t it?
School of Athens… Greek fanart? Also, talk about your old rich men???

But, again, medieval people were also painting secular fanart in their time. It just wasn’t of the Greeks, but of knights. And, and I really can’t stress this enough, popular history does this really really shitty ass thing called it pretty much ignores a whole lot of cultural development in the secular aspect of the Middle Ages and instead likes to tell us that the Middle Ages was this culturally devoid hole where you basically just worshipped God, never fucked, and died of mad diseases and so therefore the Renaissance is superior EXCEPT FUCKING NO.

So, yeah, the Renaissance actually continued to do a lot of Christian fanart. And, just to be clear, they didn’t “create” new forms of art (I cannot imagine what this person was referring to), but in fact reverted to creating art in “humanist” (Greek) fashion and just also started painting/sculpting Greek and Roman mythology fanart. That’s not new. What the Middle Ages was doing with their Catholic & Romance fanart was pretty new, actually.

Long story short: people don’t know what the Renaissance was actually doing when they say that it was “so much more creatively free and less oppressive” than the Middle Ages because actually all the “faults” that the speaker associates with the Middle Ages are 100% Renaissance faults. Except one thing, which is a fault of neither period: fanart is never compuslory, it’s always born of passion.



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