by Poppy Strange

Level 3 History student

Of all the current documentaries available on the BBC, ‘Civilisations’ is the one must see item. This documentary series is a 21st century response to the 1960s BBC series ‘Civilisation’. The nine episodes look at the interaction of civilisations and art across history, and their development and interaction to the present.

The presenters, the historians Simon Schama, Mary Beard, and David Olusoga, track the rise and fall of some the world’s greatest civilisations, as well as some less well-known cultures too. These include the prehistoric inhabitants of southern Europe and central Africa, the classical civilisations of the Romans and Minoans, the pre-Spanish civilisations in continental America (such as the Aztecs and the Olmecs), as well as modern civilisations and eras (belle époque Paris and the impact of the wars of the twentieth century on art).

The presenters utilise various themes: the beginnings of humanity’s creative endeavours; western and global renaissance; colonisation and finally the birth of the modern age. They consider the art of these civilisations, what it reveals about humanity and how these cultures developed, expanded, drew upon and influenced each other. In doing so, they expose the ways in which we view the world around us and how we interpret art created by others.

Each episode is fascinating and complex, however it is the third episode entitled, ‘The Eye of Faith’, examined here. Beard presents the history and development of key features within the religious art of various global faiths, showing the importance each placed on art, the ways they influenced and interacted with each other and their own religions. She argues that religions have always intertwined with art and consequently the two need to be considered together.

The episode opens at the spring equinox celebrations at Angkor Wat. Beard examines cave paintings at the Ajanta Caves in India – a Buddhist prayer hall built in around 200BC, some of the oldest in Buddhist tradition. She argues these paintings need to be viewed in their original context and not in isolation, when comparing them to works from other artistic movements.

Angkor Wat

Beard reviews examples of Christian art, the church of St Vitale at Ravenna and the work of Tintoretto in the Scuola Grande di San Rocca in Venice. Built centuries apart, the works show how Christian art disseminated the messages and teachings of the faith. These images and buildings are important in terms of religion, as well as being exquisite works of art. At Ravenna, with its mosaic tiled walls (designed to reflect divine light into the darkness), Beard describes how every technique has been used to assert Christianity and its beliefs, portraying Jesus’s relationship with God. In Venice, the Tintoretto paintings are shown to remind the “scholars” of their charitable responsibilities via the portrayal of biblical scenes. The most famous painting here is the crucifixion: figures in the painting are portrayed in sixteenth century dress, thereby blurring the lines between painting and viewer, and thereby between historical and contemporary events.

Tintoretto artwork in Scuola Grande di San Rocco

Beard also examines the history of Islamic art, its ban on the representation of living creatures, and elevation of words and the Qur’an as an art form through calligraphy. Beard expands the traditional western view of art, encompassing art forms not commonly dealt with in mainstream documentaries. Beard visits two mosques in Turkey, the Sancaklar mosque and the Blue mosque. Sancaklar offers a non-traditional take on the art of Islam combining modernism and religion. The Blue Mosque has traditional ornate decoration depicting calligraphy and natural patterns. Both mosques, with their lack of human ornamentation and focus on scripture, elevate the written word proffering God in the art of writing. This beauty and examination of non-western traditions makes this episode and series an engaging and enjoyable watch.

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

Beard considers when interactions between religions take a darker turn involving the wholesale destruction or defacement of other religions’ art.  Beard cites the destruction of Ely Cathedral’s Catholic artwork by Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell’s troops removed the heads and hands of images and statues in the church. This, Beard argues, was a symbolic attempt to remove the parts of the statues that had living power.

Alternatively, religions may reuse artworks as part of the subjugation process. For example, the mosque on the Qutb Minar complex in Delhi. Built by Muslim crusaders, the mosque incorporates parts of previous Hindu buildings, inadvertently displaying Hindu imagery, albeit that living creatures have had their faces obliterated. The builders may be showing a degree of respect for Hindu craftsmanship, even while asserting their own dominance.

This episode exemplifies why this series is such an engaging show to watch. The presenter is well known and respected in her field, and her presentation, appreciation and understanding of the places or objects she examines is palpable throughout the episode. Great care is given to each civilisation and religion examined. What results is a deeply fascinating programme with a diverse range of cultures observed. It allows the viewer to observe and understand new cultures and see amazing places without leaving their home. “Civilisations” is definitely the TV show to be watching this summer.