Well, you wouldn’t even attempt it nowadays, would you, standing in front of the camera and pontificating in a posh accent about western civilisation. In fact even the idea that there might be such a thing as civilisation here in the west would be enough to cause half of Facebook to implode. And yet, the DVD of Civilisation by Sir Kenneth Clark which I’ve been watching again, has surprisingly a lot to offer, and defuses many of the prejudices with which one approaches it, along the way. For one thing, Clark doesn’t deny that there are other civilisations out there, though he doesn’t spend much time on them; and though there are a few uncomfortable gaps, what he says is balanced and intelligent. And unlike many modern documentaries, the camera moves slowly and carefully over the works of art he shows giving you time to appreciate them.
I realise now that much of the of the art that I’ve seen over the years was inspired by watching the series years ago (even though that must have been in black and white)Ravenna, Urbino, Mantua, Chartres, Assissi ; all those places I’ve been to because of Sir Kenneth.
And we’ve just completed another Sir Kenneth pilgrimage, we’ve been to Aachen, to see the treasures of Charlemagne. Aachen is a pretty little town, not ancient because it was destroyed twice, once by fire in the seventeenth century, and once -er- by us in WW2. But Charlemagne’s cathedral, which is at the heart of it, and really all there is to see, remains fundamentally undamaged. It’s a surprisingly tiny cathedral, built as an octagon, as Solomon’s temple was supposed to be, and though Sir Kenneth is somewhat disparaging about it, rises inside as a forest of fragile columns, in a shimmer of blue and white marble and golden mosaic. (the mosaics are 19thc but that doesn’t matter) We heard High Mass there on Sunday morning, and it gave me a frisson to know that we were sitting where Mass had been celebrated
non-stop for well over a thousand years. And the cathedral treasures – especially to those of us used to seeing cathedrals as grey stripped spaces, are quite incredible, exquisite manuscripts in minuscule, carved ivory and silver book covers, gem studded reliquaries (with some of the dodgiest relics you can imagine, still revered – Jesus’s loincloth, anyone?) Dark Ages, what Dark Ages? said Richard in amazement as we looked at them all. On the whole, as ancient despots go, Charlemagne didn’t seem to be too bad. He supported scholars, especially English ones, in his court, and promulgated learning as well as art. He was also – in a literal sense – the father of his people -siring so many children that today one European in five can claim descent from him. It was a magical weekend, we saw unforgettable things, and once again, I’m grateful to Sir Kenneth.
I’m a rather clumsy downloader of pictures, but the pictures I show are: an exquisite pulpit, which for reasons I can’t remember is more properly called an ‘ambo’, the restored mosaic and Charlemagne’s throne, made with marble brought back from the site of the Holy Sepulchure ds/2015/11/throne.jpg”>