Of Letters, Of Moving Pictures

Civilisation – The Middle Ages

Can one define Civilization? Sir Kenneth Clark wholeheartedly declares that he cannot possibly enounce it, and to underline the intent and terms of such a grand undertake it brings to the title the Personal View and ends up being aired as such on BBC 2 in 1969 entitled Civilisation, with a smooth s instead of the cutting z. But the documentary and the book describe civilisation at its best, with a plethora of historical references, personalities, art and architectural landmarks, statues and paintings adorning spiritual sites. This may have been deemed a personal view of Kenneth Clark but it is definitely enriching and enthralling to be following through such a journey, that has  so much to comprehend and contemplate to. The documentary is so rich in references, one feels the urge of an assiduous research and study of all the material presented.


There is so much essence in Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation that it deserves to be listened, viewed and read over and over again. It should be taught in schools, used as educational material, as a long-standing reference to the world. In much the same way that some of the masterpieces described in this documentary are eternal so shall be his writings and impressions. It is concrete, elaborate, closely relating to palpable and real moments in history, bringing much relevance into expressing Civilisation. It comes live on screen from museums, cathedrals, monasteries, palaces or landscapes as they relate to western art.

It is much for the overall context that the merit goes to, it assembles the documentary as a journey formed across history, art creations or architectural currents which provide the context necessary to form a valuable image of how humanity evolved over the last 2,000 years across Western Europe. The script unfold with passion, filled with interesting facts and expressed in such an exquisite way, it fells as is not to be missed. To add to this, the actual images, the aerial views and accompanying music of such special sites, Clark’s tonality and intonations are immensely contributing to the overall experience of the viewer, especially at the time of release when people where not exposed to the wealth of information found today on the world wide web.

Sir David Attenborough, was at the helm of BBC2 when Civilisation was produced, and it is much to him that we owe this documentary as it is to K. Clark or the director Michael Gill and producer Peter Montagnon. The times were revolutionary, BBC2 was just being born, as it was coming live on screens in 1964, and being broadcasted for the first time in television history on the 625 line ultra high frequency, and venturing onto the deliverance of colour TV. Quite an undertake, and in this context, Attenborough proposes the Civilisation production to be challenged and insistently invites the unquestionable character that could do the job for this – K. Clark.

This amazing journey into history and art does have a lot to do with the authenticity and the attempt of unsurfacing of the truth that lies at the base of the European civilisation. It is a delicate task of undertaking such interpretations and judgments based on works of art, expressions of people from paintings, creative forces and buildings of marvel that were left behind. The images speak a thousand words, and the documentary bears this additional element which is visually compelling around the discourse, or the majestic music bringing these images alive and add to the overall impact it has on the spectator. The book in turn, lets the reader imagine a lot of these things but it does also allow for the lessons to be learned and absorbed in an more settled way. This is definitely a case for the book to be read after travelling through the visual journey of the documentary.

Looking for Civilisation

Sir Kenneth Clark was born in 1903, was made director of the National Gallery at the age of 30, knighted in 1938, and awarded Honorary Fellow from the Royal Institute of British Architects and the Royal Academy of Arts. These are just a few of the many accomplishments that he collected throughout his life, and beyond being a remarkable scholar he was also a passionate collector of art, with tremendous help from his wealth, largely inherited from his family. Around 300 works of art have been in his collection, from Giovanni Bellini – The Virgin and Child from c.1470, to drawings by Leonardo da Vinci, from Seurat to Cezanne (in 1933 he bought about 50 drawings and watercolours by Cézanne). His collection also included ten small Constables, several paintings and drawings by Matisse and in the early 1950s he bought Turner’s ‘Seascape: Folkestone’, which ended up being sold at auction to a private collector for $10,023,200. Originating from around 1845, Seascape is composed largely of a range of green pigments, touched here and there with pinks, yellows and blues. A vague stroke outlines in the background, on the left, Saltwood Castle, where Lord Clark lived.

Seascape Folkstone by Turner

The documentary opens up in a dramatic way with vivid images from across different periods of history accompanied by grandiose music and the first scenes come down as being shot in front of the Notre Dame Cathedral in Paris, certainly a defining structure of civilisation. A big admirer of John Ruskin, Clark opens the stage with one of his quintessential quotes:

“Great nations write their autobiographies in three manuscripts—the book of their deeds, the book of their words, and the book of their art. Not one of these books can be understood unless we read the two others; but of the three, the only quite trustworthy one is the last.”

The Skin of Our Teeth

Chronologically the choice of departure into the Civilisation journey is placed at the end of the decline of the Roman Empire and the start of the Middle Ages. The barbarians invade Europe and almost trample down its flag, barely surviving the attacks. The invaders have almost conquered the lands of unfulfilled civilisation, but it is thanks to the grandiose and vivid characters like Charlemagne that Europe is reborn and escapes through the Skin of our Teeth, the title of episode 1 opening up the series.

But before rising from the ashes, civilisation is under much suffering and it is in remote places like the Island of Skellig Michael that Christianity hangs on to and survives for more than 100 years. The programme brings to us the Celtic Christianity that can cling onto such remote places, a spectacular site to look at and one can only imagine these peoples lives battered by storms, winds and misery, and their determination to carve stone huts and mark them with the sign of the cross above their flowered and green-grass covered roofs.

Skellig Michael

This was the time and way to run far from the so called Norsemen, the common term used for the Vikings; they were constantly on the move, sweeping the coasts of England, Ireland or Scotland. And in this context the Vikings are presented and mark an impression through their ships and contributions to civilisation, as the transatlantic man, or the inspirational model and prelude to what was to become Cristopher Columbus. But Clark mentions one key aspect, the Norsemen lacked in principle a desire to consolidate their culture, did not long for a sense of permanence.


Walking up the steps of determination and faith

This is Christian monasticism at its best, symbolically built on these bee-hive-like huts and marked solidly through these stone crosses that have populated the British isles all around those times. Strange feelings that one can be surrounded by when looking from atop Skellig Michael towards the waters and skies, the horizon must have been filled with promising hope for those people.

The images swiftly swirl through to the waves off to another island, that of Iona, another spectacular sample of early Celtic Christianity. Clark has some subjective memories to relate to and the question arouses as of to what does it? What is special about this island? The air, the light, this sense of inner peace that one intakes immediately? Or is it the history of the holy men that for 400 years have transformed the island into a sacred place, under the initial governance of St Columba, bringing up more than 300 stone crosses standing tall and proud against the sky, most of them though unfortunately destroyed during the Reformation.

Monastery of Iona

Monastery of Iona

The island of Iona also holds its fame from one of the greatest treasures of Medieval history, a manuscript, the Book of Kells. An amazingly decorated and calligraphed manuscript, filled with abstract images of plants, animals or humans, attempting to drive the glory of Jesus and His life all throughout the four gospels of the New Testament. It is mostly inspired from the Vulgate, the fourth century translation of the Bible into Latin, and given the raids and conquests that the Vikings were conducting during those times it is a miracle the Book has survived through all these times.

The Book of Kells

The Book of Kells – The Chi Ro page

“Chi and Rho are two letters of the Greek alphabet, the first two letters of “Christ”. Chi gives a hard Ch sound. Rho is an R. Chi is written as an X. Rho is roughly a P.”

Eyes are enchanted from full folio pages of decorations and symbols of the evangelists Matthew as the Man, Mark as the Lion, Luke as the Calf and John as the Eagle. A portrait of Christ, the Virgin and Child, and The Chi Rho page, introducing Matthew’s account of the nativity, one of the most looked at page in medieval art.

The continent attempts  to reunite after the battle of Poitiers lead by Charles Martel, and has a strong and consolidated existence under Charlemagne. This is the beginning of a new era, and Kenneth Clark makes if felt as such, striking, bold and with a lot of essence in the message. Much contribution is attributed to Charlemagne for the initial formation and inception of what is to become Civilisation, in part due to its skilled tactics, politics and leadership, but also due to the contribution to learning, education and the so called scriptorias, centres dedicated to the copying of books. Alcuin of York, an English scholar, is the personality of those times, leading this often termed Carolingian Renaissance, as it has revived so much into arts, literature and architecture.


Portrait of Charlemagne by Albrecht Dürer

Much is said also about the rise and consolidation of the Cathedral at Aachen, an architectural masterpiece and a tremendous landmark in history, it was based much on the influence and vision of Charlemagne, a lot carried over from the byzantine style Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna. The spectacle of the interiors at Aix-la-Chapelle is something that one can uniquely experience visually by looking at these BBC camera takes as presented in episode 1. This is the beginning of the realization that the documentary is about to expose a series of dramatic experiences around places that bear a lot of weight in the history of mankind.

Aachen Cathedral

Aachen Cathedral

Charlemagne is buried here and a series of reliquaries are adorning this sacred place. The Carolingian stone throne was used across time as a symbol of coronation for the kings of the Holy Roman Empire up until the 16th century. Sir Kenneth Clark opens and concludes this incursion with the presentation of two of the most striking emblems that were left for us in the Cathedral Treasury – the cross of Lothar (1000 AD) and the reliquary bust of Charlemagne constructed out of gold and silver around the king’s skullcap. The admiration though simply falls to the back of the cross, the soul and feel come out of the simple engraving in metal of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.

Lothar Cross

Lothar Cross

Aachen Cathedral is also the sacred place that holds the treasure of the four relics since the time of Charlemagne.The relics, old cloth materials, are – St. Mary’s robe from the night on which Jesus was born; Christ’s swaddling clothes, which Mary used to protect the baby; the cloth in which John the Baptist’s head was kept after he was beheaded; Jesus’ loin cloth which he wore on the cross. These marvels were given to Charlemagne as a present from Jerusalem and since 1349, the relics have been placed on display every seven years for the Christians around the world for a period of ten days.

Episode 2, The Great Thaw, opens up the door to the Gothic world and the Medieval times as expressed in a series of travels through the Abbeys of Vezelay, Autun, Moissac or St. Dennis. This story ultimately lands in the world of Chartres where the Gothic style reaches the peak of Gothic expression, and is also a lot about the monastic spirit that propagated around Western Europe, and managed to instill a vital force in the process of Civilisation, through strong faith, united forces and engagement of the Church, as a powerful, well administered institution.

The Great Thaw

The Great Thaw

Spectacular opening remarks come on camera from Sir Kenneth Clark on part 2 of Civilisation, taken in front of the majestic Canterbury Cathedral:

“There have been times in the history of man when the earth seems suddenly to have grown warmer or more radio-active… I don’t put that forward as a scientific proposition, but the fact remains that three or four times in history man has made a leap forward that would have been unthinkable under ordinary evolutionary conditions. One such time was about the year 3000 BC, when quite suddenly civilisation appeared, not only in Egypt and Mesopotamia but in the Indus valley; another was in the late sixth century BC, when there was not only the miracle of Ionia and Greece—philosophy, science, art, poetry, all reaching a point that wasn’t reached again for 2000 years, but also in India a spiritual enlightenment that has perhaps never been equalled. Another was round about the year 1100. It seems to have affected the whole world; but its strongest and most dramatic effect was in Western Europe – where it was most needed. It was like a Russian spring. In every branch of life – action, philosophy, organization, technology – there was an extraordinary outpouring of energy, an intensification of existence. Popes, emperors, kings, bishops, saints, scholars, philosophers were all larger than life, and the incidents of history – Henry II at Canossa, Pope Urban announcing the First Crusade, Heloise and Abelard, the martyrdom of St Thomas a Becket – are great heroic dramas, or symbolic acts, that still stir our hearts.”

How uniquely and well defined are these fantastic times presented – “…an intensification of existence. Popes, emeperors, kings, bishops, saints,…, were all larger than life…”. Suppose anybody would have liked to live in such an explosive and creative society. The story brings up the importance of the Church, and not as a repository of spirituality and faith, but rather as an organization, a democratic one that is, driven by a lot of intellectuals, capable and skilled, who dedicated their entire careers and existences to the Christian faith.

The Medieval Ages seem to be heavily bolted down to the creation of such grandiose spiritual places as the Abbey of Cluny. Founded in 910, and during the sixty years guidance of Abbot Hugh of Semur, Cluny became the largest church in Europe, and an architectural landmark that has influenced the monastic world throughout Western Europe. Only the south transept still stands, much of the other parts were destroyed in the nineteenth century. It is here that the Benedictine order is considered to have introduced the major changes also known as the Cluniac reforms, which were primarily concerned with bringing back to life the traditional monastic life. Cluny is a lot about heavily accented arches, pointed or rounded, allowing the spirit to travel freely through time and mind. It also holds the highest vaulted roof of the Romanesque architecture reaching 30 metres above the nave.

Cluny Abbey

Cluny Abbey Interior

The Great Thaw is a journey through the Medieval Ages and not only on contemplation and creation of new spiritual and monastic discipline but also through movement, action and reaction, what Clark refers to as the pilgrimages, or as everybody knows them as the Crusades. One can only wish for more material on the documentary around the history and essentials of the Crusades, given the continuous debate and question marks that haunt their history. But one thing is for sure, these were the times of Pilgrimages, be it towards Jerusalem, Chartres or Santiago de Compostella. Episode 2 can definitely be used as the source of inspiration for a reader’s Pilgrimage into these sites and beyond, as coming to a close encounter with these sacred sites can definitely make one understand and consolidate knowledge. And for those who do believe, it is the ground to strengthen and enable the communion with God.

Vézelay Abbey

The Cluniac Abbey of Vezelay inspires sir Kenneth Clark into admitting that such harmony can only bring one to think that it becomes part of the Divine Law, the light entrails the interior of the Abbey with such intensity and enlightenment that it makes the believer embrace the spiritual trance and become part of it.  The combination of light, Romanesque arches and stone facades with the blueish accents open up to the heart. But to as much as it is also loaded with rich sculptures where one can spend hours into study, it did also generate controversy at the time in relation to the beastly animals sculpted and adorned around the Abbey.


The camera is still somewhat focused in the world of Romanesque and Greaco-Roman art, and the story continues towards another sacred place, this time around signed on its walls by Gislebertus. Looking at Autun Cathedral in Burgundy, one can definitely feel some transition from Romanesque to Gothic, still rich in sculptures, the exterior has some late 15th century additions that seem to lay down the bridge of transition. Autun is a place dedicated to the relics of St Lazarus; legend has it that Lazarus and his sister Mary Magdalene traveled to Provence, where Lazarus is declared the first bishop of Marseilles, unfortunately to be eventually martyred and his relics to be housed at Autun. But much dedication in the programme goes to the rich sculptures of Gislebertus and his stories portrayed on portals, colonnades or porticos.

Abbey of St Dennis

The Abbey of St Dennis is the new force appearing on the European continent and is presented to the viewer underlining its importance as being the first major structure in the world of Gothic art. It is a breakthrough, much to be owed to Abbot Suger, who decided in about 1137 to rebuild the St Dennis, that is to become the burial church of many of the French monarchs and kings. Many of the revolutionary features of St Dennis were unique and innovative, and extraordinary achievements in architecture and engineering. From the pointed arches to the clerestory adorned with stained glass, from the clustered columns supporting ribs springing in different directions to the high flying buttresses, which enabled the insertion of large clerestory windows allowing light to travel through coloured glass to fill up the space into a sense of surreal.

Chartres Cathedral

To believe and make the most of the meaning of the Gothic world “…one must go to Chartres…”. It is a true masterpiece, of unexpected proportions and built based on marvellous engineering, some that cannot be imagined as achievable even by today’s standards and technologies. And yet again, the magnitude and force of this cathedral has a lot to do with faith, the Christians built and created this masterpiece driven out of belief, towards the relic of a tunic of Virgin Mary at the time of the Annunciation. The Romanesque version of the cathedral burns to pieces in 1194, but to anyone’s surprise the relic survives intact and strengthens people’s will for building a new church to bring it to higher spiritual and architectural values. It almost feels like the whole of France contributed to this, unconditionally. Flying buttresses brought the spirit to new heights, majestic pillars held the large roofs, vividly coloured stained glass adorned the pointed arches, an architectural ensemble forming a declaration to the whole world that the Gothic style is now flying high up into existence.

Chartres suspended

“Chartres is the epitome of the first great awakening in European civiliza­tion. It is also the bridge between Romanesque and Gothic, between the world of Abelard and the world of St Thomas Aquinas, the world of restless curiosity and the world of system and order. Great things were to be done in the next centuries of high Gothic, great feats of construction, both in architecture and in thought. But they all rested on the foundations of the twelfth century. That was the age which gave European civilization its impetus. Our intellectual energy, our contact with the great minds of Greece, our ability to move and change, our belief that God may be approached through beauty, our feeling of compassion, our sense of the unity of Christendom – all this, and much more, appeared in those hundred marvel­lous years between the consecration of Cluny and the rebuilding of Chartres.”

Romance and Reality

Part 3, Romance and Reality, continues the programme into the Gothic period. The camera is still focused on Chartres, this time looking up the north portal, sir Clark opening up on the chivalric subjects that so well define the medieval ages, much to be inherited to present day. The power of courtly love is carried through by knights and ladies and well presented through tapestries crafted like fantasies, feelings of poetry, bowing and singing, all happening in and around castle courts. One feels that the word courtesy was formed and the French and Burgundian courts were filled with it through models of fashion and good manners that were then carried all over Europe.

“I am in the Gothic world, the world of chivalry, courtesy and romance; a world in which serious things were done with a sense of play – where even war and theology could become  a sort of game; and when architecture reached a point of extravagance unequalled in history.”

But the essence of this episode belongs to St Francis of Assisi, this simple but most religious man ever, who has inspired so many people around the globe, and who can still draw pilgrims to the church dedicated to him even to the present day. It is an impressive story of Christian faith taken to heights of sanctity that are difficult to grasp and understand. It is a man that truly dedicated his entire life to God, to the idea of renouncing all that is of material benefit, including his own clothes and roof, and lived through the years, under the stars befriending the animals, a life in utter simplicity and guided by extraordinary religious principles that offered him all this strength.

Basilica of St Francis of Assisi

St Francis drew so much spiritual power around him that he ended up in Egypt in 1219, in discussions with the Sultan to attempt a solution to end the conflicts of the Crusades. Francis is also known historically for the love of the Eucharist, and then of course one must attribute him the values and contributions that the Franciscan Order are to bring over the years.

Aparition at Arles, fresco by Giotto

The Basilica dedicated to St Francis is a Unesco World Heritage Site since 2000. It is a marvel and holds 28 frescoes by Giotto in the Upper Basilica. The camera changes focus and zooms forwards into painting, and Giotto becomes one of the first of many artists to be analyzed and explored starting from the frescoes of this marvelous Basilica. Giotto dedicated much space and time to the story of St Francis, and the frescoes are basically a fantastic depiction of his spiritual life.

Giotto was the opening artistic act to the Renaissance, and so the story naturally continues into one of most celebrated periods in the history of arts. The next 3 episodes come alive on screen from the worlds of Florence or Rome, having as main protagonists the exceptional creative forces of Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, and Raphael.

“If anything is going to date this series it will be its humane decency, its quest for the longer view and the golden thread, its admiration for the great artists. Such beliefs now echo strangely in a world of shrill pundits ignorantly confident about the nature of art and civilization.”

Julian Barnes, The Observer

Always in search for Civilisation

Always in search for Civilisation



Manuscripts, Viking relics, sculptures, and locations:
LONDON – British Museum
OXFORD – Ashmolean Museum (Cast Gallery)
CAMBRIDGE – Fitzwilliam Museum, Trinity College Library
DUBLIN – Trinity College Library
LEIDEN – University Library
PARIS – Biblioteque Nationale
POITIERS – The Baptistry
ZURICH – Musee National Suisse
RAVEN – Church of S. Vitale
AACHEN – The Cathedral and Treasury
COLOGNE – St. Peter’s Cathedral
FRANKFURT ON MAIN – Stadt-und Universitätsbibliothek
MUNICH – Bayerische Staatsbibliothek
TRIER – Stadtbibliothek, Cathedral Treasury
WÜRZBURG – Unveristatsbibliothek
VIENNA – Kunsthistorisches Museum
OSLO – Vikingskiphuset, Universitetets Oldsaksamling
STOCKHOLM – Statens Historiska Museum


Miniatures, paintings, sculptures and locations
WINCHESTER – Cathedral Library
CAMBRIDGE – Corpus Christi College
LODNON – British Museum, National Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum
PARIS – Louvre, Bibliothèque Nationale
The Abbeys and Churches of
AUTUN – Cathedral of St. Lazare
CHARTERS – Cathedral of Notre Dame
NEW YORK – Pierpont Morgan Library


Miniatures, tapestries, paintings, sculpture, and locations
PARIS – Cluny Museum, Louvre
CHANTILLY – Conde Museum
CHARTERS – Cathedral of Notre Dame
ASSISI – Basilica of St. Francis
FLORENCE – The Berenson Collection
PADUA – Arena Chapel
PISA – Baptistry and Cathedral
PISTOIA – Sant’ Andrea
SIENA – Palazzo Pubblico
VIENNA – Austrian National Library
LONDON – British Museum, National Gallery, Victoria & Albert Museum
CAMBRIDGE – Pepsin Library, Magdalene College
LIVERPOOL – City of Liverpool Museums

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