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Medieval Separatism and its Place in Contemporary Art

My investigation into the realms of medieval separatism and how this concept can establish a foothold in contemporary art, has continued to deepen. I have narrowed my scope and researched artists and authors, both medieval and modern, who explore and depict separatism, researching how painting, as a practice, and paint as a medium, are effective in triggering and mobilizing change of societal attitudes towards minority groups. My focus has been divided, primarily, into examining three pockets of prejudice: racism, homophobia, and, especially, transphobia. 


Upon seeing Santiago Sierra’s, Línea de 160 cm Tatuada Sobre 4 Personas (Fig.1), as part of the Tate Modern’s exhibition, Performer and Participant: Art of Participation, I began to consider the role of certain ‘invisible’ members of society –  like drug addicts and prostitutes, who were once members of the very society which has largely ostracized them. This form of ‘self-induced’ rejection stands in stark contrast to those who experience alienation based upon nationality, religion and gender, for example. However, Sierra’s work is far from being morally sound, and the ethical ambiguity which floats around his work is unavoidable, for paying heroin addicts enough money for a shot of the drug in return for their time is a contentious act.




Regardless, his work never fails to generate publicity, a necessity when the aim is to gain public attention. Further, although controversial, Sierra’s work does pave the way for discussion and debate of important topics, and shows the clout that fine art still carries in what is becoming an increasingly technological world. I aim to raise similar questions about prejudice in society, and want my practice to mobilize conversations about the presence of discrimination and how best to initiate change.


In order to fully encompass this subject matter, I turn to the medieval period, marked by its vivid and often monster-depicting portrayal of people originating from different nationalities. The Hereford Mappa Mundi alongside the Nuremberg Chronicles (Figs.2 & 3) and the Macclesfield Psalter are prime examples of this. 


                                         Fig.2                       Fig.3

Different races are portrayed as deformed and frightening, with exaggerated limbs and animal features. These so called ‘monstrous races’ were the result of reports given by explorers such as Marco Polo, who famously describes the ‘dogheads’ in his journey to Asia. Another document that has informed my practice is The Bird’s Head Haggadah, a medieval ritual text recounting the story of the Passover. The illustrations which accompany the text depict the 

Jewish figures as grotesque, with beaks for noses, pig’s ears, and large, bulging eyes. Alongside this, the medieval hybrids resemble birds of prey, a creature which is considered impure in Jewish Law. These actions reflect anti-semitic attitudes and show the origins of how some racial stereotypes emerged.


                                  Fig.4                               Fig.5

Exaggerating certain facial features when portraying people from different races is commonplace throughout history and has its roots in the medieval period. The dehumanizing images of African-Americans found in the late 19th and early 20th centuries (Fig.4), and the anti-Semitic cover cartoons found in Streicher’s, Der Stürmer (Fig. 5) during the Nazi dictatorship provide modern examples. In both cases, facial features are grossly caricatured, transforming the ordinary to the demonic. The monstrous persona aims to mirror the inner immorality which the African-American’s and Jews were thought to possess. 


I have adapted this distortion technique in my practice, where, for example, in, A Multifaceted Medium, I reversed the process, distorting the faces of the discriminator as opposed to the discriminated (see, Essay Unit 1). The purpose of this distortion is to indicate the latent corruption in those who still hold prejudicial views, with a specific nod to the Church, who often fall short of the idealized virtues it claims to represent. Figures 6-9 show drawings with watercolour backgrounds, and Fig. 9, a watercolour, related to my current practice, in a thematic continuation, but to encompass transgender clergy.




                                        Fig.6                         Fig.7














                                        Fig.8                          Fig.9

Upon viewing such dehumanized depictions of the 20th century, one is immediately reminded of Hieronymus Bosch’s, Christ Crowned with Thorns, and, Christ Carrying the Cross (Fig.10). In both paintings, the Jewish members are portrayed as grotesque, with contorted faces and demonic expressions. 


                                   Fig.10                                Fig.11                         


We can also draw parallels with Dreyer’s, La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc (Fig.11) where the clerics all bear facial abnormalities, such as growths, or spurts of hair which mirror the Devil’s horns. 


                                       Fig.12                          Fig.13

My investigation into medieval separatism has led me to the work of Michael Ray Charles, a contemporary American painter (Figs.12 & 13) who, in his own words, considers how best to ‘deal with present and past stereotypes in the context of today’s society’ (, 2018). Charles’s exploration into how historic stereotypes (in particular, African-Americans) are still prevalent in contemporary society, draws parallels with my current studio practice, as I too use paint as a medium to explore its utility when exposing latent racism.


Leonardo da Vinci’s drawings of ‘grotesques’, with particular reference to, Study of Five Grotesque Heads (Fig. 14), depicts faces which all bear facial abnormalities and exaggerated expressions, with ‘sagging skin, bulbous noses and elephantine jaws’ (Jones, 2002).

















The medieval period has been dubbed the ‘pre-humanitarian age’ by Gombrich, noting that ‘such monstrosities and malformations - the dwarf, the cripple and the bizarre physiognomy - belonged to the category of ‘curiosities’ to be gaped at’ (Jones, 2002). The last century has seen academics and politicians attempt to disassociate themselves from the ‘pre-humanitarian’ era, whilst it is clear that such social ostrasization still has a foothold in contemporary society. Further, it is indeed ironic that when Gombrich made these judgements in his 1952 lecture, homosexuality was still illegal, with 1,069 gay men being imprisoned in England and Wales by the end of 1954 (Aaron Day, 2018) - the same year that saw code-breaker Alan Turing convicted of ‘gross indecency’, resulting in his being offered chemical castration in preference to incarceration. Turing’s suicide is a reminder that the United Kingdom was still embracing pre-humanitarianism, and, as Geraldine Bedell describes it in her article, Coming Out of the Dark Ages, the Fifties and Sixties had an ‘appallingly repressive atmosphere’ (Bedell, 2007). My studio practice is informed by these hypocrisies and aims to unravel and expose institutions which still enforce social norms which promote social separatism.















My research led me to Victim (Fig. 15) – a 1961 film directed by Basil Dearden. I was attracted to it because of the controversy it created amongst British and American censors on its release. It was the first English language film to use the word ‘homosexual’, a daring move for the time. Victim also ruffled feathers at the Venice Film Festival on its release, with one (unnamed) Italian film critic commenting that ‘at last the British have stopped being hypocrites’ (Watts, 1961). Peter Bradshaw, writing for the Guardian, comments in his review that the film ‘played a vital part’ (Bradshaw, 2018) in the decriminalization of homosexual acts. Victim acted as a catalyst, paving the way for a re-visitation of laws surrounding toleration and acceptance of sexual ‘aberration’. Film and Fine Art are both children from the same parents, and can undoubtedly foster the potential to initiate change. They both capture the attention and conjure emotion, which are essential in creating change. I hope to trigger conversations about gender through my work, with the intention that it leads to people reflecting upon current injustices. 


Victim led me to, Undoing Gender, by Judith Butler, a book which dissects the word ‘gender’. Butler asks, ‘What counts as a person? What counts as a coherent gender? What qualifies as a citizen? Whose word is legitimized as real?’ (2009: 58). These questions ask us to consider and, perhaps, challenge, which particular social norms need to be manifest in order to allocate personhood. My interest lies in people living on the fringe, often deemed unworthy of acceptance, and how I may portray them through paint, in a way which does them and their cause justice. For this, I often reflect upon the medieval painters use of distortion as an effective way of emphasizing immorality. 


The last half-century has seen the Western world become more accepting of some previously deemed deviant behaviour. However, there is still a shadow that hangs over transexualality. This has been further endorsed by the production and success of Love, Simon. The film is a gay love story and has been described by leading tabloids as ‘a landmark in LGBTQ cinema’ (Ide, 2018).










Although, perhaps, seeming a little patronizing to the gay community, such as the film’s advertising slogan’s, ‘Everyone Deserves a Great Love Story’, it has been embraced by the general public and LGBTQ community alike. I reached out to the gay community through social platforms to enquire about Love, Simon, to gauge its impact. One reply I received noted: ‘I think it’s great that we are finally seeing gay characters move from the periphery to centre stage ... it’s progress.’ The choice to drift away from the heteronormative is a key element in my current studio practice, with the main protagonists in my project’s preliminary works and paintings being gender ambiguous. Placing a LGBTQ figure centre-stage on any work invites comment. Furthermore, the action of bringing these often largely invisible members out of the wings and into the spotlight invites audience participation as they come face-to-face with centuries of prejudice. I aim for my work to demand thought and discussion about the lingering discrimination. 












There is a fascination associated with the transgender community. The Danish Girl (Fig. 17) has been subjected to heavy criticism by members of that community, being accused of pandering to a heterosexual audience. One reason for this is that Eddie Redmayne was chosen for the role of Lily (the transgender lead) and it has been argued that it would have been more appropriate to have had a transgender person play the protagonist. Further, one film reviewer comments, ‘gender, like race and disability, is a lived experience. Daniel Radcliffe can play a wizard in a film, but perhaps he shouldn’t play a black wizard. Or a female wizard. Or a disabled wizard’ (Smith, 2016). However, as is the case of Sierra’s work, often, absolute morality needs to be subordinate in order to enlarge a project’s scale and propel it into the public sphere. I would like to ensure that my work achieves the right balance between attracting attention whilst not causing offense - there can be a fine line between the two.


People tend to be afraid of the unknown and without introducing the presence of certain fringe groups into the public domain, their members will remain subjects of controversy and potential targets of discrimination, much as the news of new peoples and races who emerged in the medieval period caused social anxiety. Those who deviate from the norm have all been subjected to being portrayed as monstrous and grotesque. This is a common trend throughout history and can often intensify during periods when a community feels their safety is compromised and are looking for a scapegoat. The Jewish population often takes the full brunt of this, with two key examples being their massacre during the Black Death in the 14th Century and the anti-Semitic policies perpetuated during the Nazi regime. 


Butler considers the ‘malleability’ and fluidity of gender in her, Sex Reassignment and Allegories of Transsexuality (2009: 62). This notion has heavily influenced my recent studio practice and I have purposely made the figures gender ambiguous. My work has also undoubtedly been influenced by a visit to Tate Britain’s, All Too Human exhibition, which proved similarly informative in the exploration of the human condition. 


















Bacon’s, Three Figures and a Portrait (Fig.18), in particular, has taught me that a photorealistic portrait of a sitting model is hardly ever the most effective way to display the essence of what it is to be cognizant being, and I take my cue from this master painter, who just happened to be a troubled homosexual. 











Aaron Day, P. (2018). The Pink News Guide to the History of England and Wales Equal Marriage. [online] PinkNews. Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2018]. (2018). Michael Ray Charles | artnet. [online] Available at: [Accessed 10 May 2018]. (2018). Support for Trans* Students. [online] Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2018].


Bedell, G. (2007). Coming Out of the Dark Ages. The Guardian [online]. Available at: [Accessed 11 May 2018].


Bishop, C. (2004). Antagonism and Relational Aesthetics. October, 110, pp.51-79.



Bradshaw, P. (2018). Victim Review – Groundbreaking Gay Thriller Given Timely Rerelease. [online] The Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 9 May 2018].


Bytwerk, R. (2018). Caricatures from Der Stuermer. [online] Available at: [Accessed 7 May 2018].


Butler, J. (2009). Undoing Gender. 2nd ed. New York, NY [u.a.]: Routledge, pp.57-204.


Daston, L. and Park, K. (2001). Wonders and the Order of Nature. 2nd ed. New York: Zone Books, pp.53- 173. (n.d.). The History of Coon Chicken Inn - Anti-black Imagery - Jim Crow Museum - Ferris State University. [online] Available at: [Accessed 2 May 2018]. (2018). The Macclesfield Psalter | ILLUMINATED. [online] Available at: [Accessed 17 Apr. 2018].


Ide, W. (2018). Love, Simon review – A Landmark in LGBTQ Cinema. [online] The Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 10 May 2018].


Jones, J. (2002). The Marvelous Ugly Mugs. The Guardian, [online] pp.1-4. 


Jones, J. (2016). Colour: The Art and Science of Illuminated Manuscripts review – A Rainbow of Agony and Ecstasy. [online] The Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 8 Apr. 2018].




Kohler, W. (2017). FLASHBACK 1962: TIME Magazine Blasts UK Gay Classic ‘VICTIM’ Calls it a ‘Plea for Perversion’. [online] Back2Stonewall. Available at: [Accessed 5 May 2018].



McIlwain Nishimura, M. (2009) Images in the Margins. 2nd ed. London: British Library.



Smith, S. (2016). Why the Danish Girl’s Oscar Loss is a Satisfying Win for Trans Women. [online] Public Radio International. Available at: [Accessed 10 May 2018].



Watts, S. (1961). Noted on the British Film Scene. New York Times. [online] [Accessed 24 April 2016].



Wieck, R. (1999). Time Sanctified: The ‘Book of Hours’ in Medieval Art and Life. 2nd ed. New York: George Braziller Inc.



DVD, Video or Film



La passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928). [DVD] Directed by C. Dreyer. Boulogne-Billancourt: Carl Dreyer.



Love, Simon (2018) [film]. Directed by G. Greg Berlanti. Los Angeles: Fox 2000 Pictures. 



The Beauty of Maps (2010). [video] Directed by S. Clarke. Hereford: BBC.


Transgender (2017). [video] San Francisco, California, USA]: Kanopy Streaming.


Victim (1961). [DVD] Directed by B. Dearden. London: Allied Film Makers.



Non-Author Images (In order of Occurrence)


Fig.1 Sierra, S. (2017) Photographic image taken from, Línea de 160 cm Tatuada Sobre 4 Personas.


Fig.2 Hartmann, S. (n.d.). The Nuremberg Chronicles. [image] Available at: [Accessed 23 Apr. 2018].


Fig.3 Hartmann, S. (n.d.). The Nuremberg Chronicles. [image] Available at: [Accessed 23 Apr. 2018].


Fig.4 Ferris State University (n.d.). The Coon Chicken Inn. [image] Available at: [Accessed 1 May 2018].


Fig.5 Calvin College (n.d.). Brood of Serpents. [image] Available at: [Accessed 17].



Figs.6-9 Layton, P. (2018)

Fig.10 INTV (n.d.). Christ Carrying the Cross. [image] Available at: [Accessed 21 Apr. 2018].


Fig.11 Chrislejarzar Wordpress (2010). Untitled. [image] Available at: [Accessed 12 Apr. 2018].


Fig.12 artnet (n.d.). (Forever Free) Buy Black! [image] Available at: [Accessed 2 May 2018].


Fig.13 artnet (n.d.). White Power (REWOP ETIHW).[image] Available at: [Accessed 2 May 2018].


Fig.14 (2018). Study of Five Grotesque Heads. [image] Available at: [Accessed 10 May 2018].


Fig.15 (2015). Farr is Queer. [image] Available at: [Accessed 22 Apr. 2018].


Fig.16 Empire Studios (2018). Love, Simon. [image] Available at: [Accessed 2 May 2018].


Fig.17 Variety (2015). The Danish Girl. [image] Available at: [Accessed 10 May 2018].


Fig.18 Tate (2018). Three Figures and a Portrait. [image] Available at: [Accessed 6 Mar. 2018].

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