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 January 27, 2015

Watching the first program, The Skin of Our Teeth, in HD and seeing stone faced gap toothed Clark in that same brown tweed suit stirred me to revisit my four decade long experience with the series and my distant mentor, Kenneth Clark.

During the early 1970's I taught a Time-Life television course based on Clark's Civilisation series for the college where I was employed. After a few years television courses became less popular so I converted the course into a self-paced format and continued teaching the course until online courses were possible. In 1996 I converted the material to an online course and added subsequent chapters of my own as Clark concluded his presentation in the late sixties. I continued to teach the online version even after I retired from the Kansas college and was employed by Texas A&M. Then around the year 2008 the Kansas college removed the course from the college catalogue because the humanities faculty judged the course "too Eurocentric". Kenneth and I were rejected by the PC Crowd of Resentment.

Recently I read  the BBC was planning to remake Civilisation, a plan needing some justification as the original has not gone away, or been wiped from the tapes. In fact, the BBC repeated the whole thing on HD TV in 2011. I never knew how that turned out, but I want to revisit my decades long experience with the series. So here  goes...

In the 1970's I began traveling to Europe during the summer hiatus and at Christmas break (now know as Holiday break) and Clark became my invisible tour guide. Over the next forty years I visited almost all of the buildings and much of the art in the series; the notable exceptions being the Hagia Sophia. However, the Byzantine churches of Ravenna are probably better preserved examples than the one in Istanbul.

For each of the chapters I will sketch my impressions of the various artifacts and icons as best I remember. Victoria has kept a log of all of our travels and perhaps she will add to my reminisce. I undertake this  project not necessarily in the spirit of sharing, but mostly to simply refresh all those rich experiences.


1 The Skin of our Teeth (The Frozen World)

The program was originally called The Frozen World, but was changed. I am unsure why, but Clark made a comparison between an African mask and the Apollo of the Belvedere that was politically incorrect even in the 1960's; this probably had something to do with the changes. In the edited television program Apollo is compared to the prow of a Viking ship, there was no mention of the African mask. Cultural relativism was already raising its ugly head.

pont du gard
Water canal atop the Pont du Gard, Nimes, France

The Pont du Gard, a massive triple-tiered bridge, which crosses the the canyon of the Gardon River. The bridge was a critical link in the aqueduct system which once supplied water to the ancient Roman city of Nesausas. It is 160 feet high and a monumental testimonial to the engineering skills of the Romans. The bridge is constructed of stone blocks, some weighing as much as a 6 tons, which were placed without mortar. The stones were lifted into position by block and tackle, with goats [the machine not the animal] as auxiliaries, and a winch controlled by a human-powered treadmill.

pont du gard
Pont du Gard from below

Although Clark said he could not define civilization one of it aspects is a sense of permanence and the skill to carry out long range projects such as this bridge/aqueduct.

Millions of visitors each year, most in the summer, come here, but 30 years ago we were the only ones around. We did manage to find the same spot where Clark spoke. Paul Johnson, the British Historian, thinks that bridge engineers were the best artist of the late 20th century and he could have made the same observation about Roman engineers.

To get to Clark's location for Norte Dame in Paris we had to walk from the hotel carrying a large clumsy video camera. Then make our way down to the walkway below street level. We needed a shot of the cathedral for a television program and after setting up discovered the battery for the camera was dead. I  stayed with the camera and Victoria ran (she says) the mile or so back to the hotel for another battery - not a pleasant memory. I also remember walking over the bridge, just to the left in the  image, and overhearing three American high school boys, "You want to go in that church or stay and spit in the river?"  Can there be any doubt of their decision?

notre dame
      The southern facade of Notre Dame, Paris.

Clark said he could not define civilization in abstract terms, but he went on to say, "But I think I can recognize it when I see it; and I am looking at it now." Interesting to note that in the 1790s, the church suffered desecration during the radical phase of the French Revolution when much of its religious imagery was damaged or destroyed. An extensive restoration began in 1845. A project of further restoration and maintenance began in 1991 and is ongoing.

Note from December, 2019:
notre dame
April 15, 2019, Gone.

Clark began his series with Notre Dame. With all the attacks on Western Civilization, from the Moslem world to our own Liberals, we might consider the fire a symbol of the end of our civilization.

 San Vitale, Ravenna, Italy was begun by Bishop Ecclesius in 526, when Ravenna was under the rule of the Ostrogoths and completed by the 27th Bishop of Ravenna, Maximian, in 547 preceding the Byzantine Exarchate of Ravenna. The church has an octagonal plan and combines Roman elements: the dome, shape of doorways, and stepped towers; with Byzantine elements: polygonal apse, capitals, and narrow bricks. It is the only major church from the period of the  Byzantine Emperor Justinian I to survive virtually intact to the present day.

After Charlemagne was crowned Emperor at Rome in 800 AD he stopped in Ravenna and was so impressed by St Vitale that he decided to built a like church at his home in Aix-la-Chapelle (today Aachen, Germany).

st vitale
The presbytery with a mosaic of the Lamb of God and four angels.

We visited Ravenna twice and were much more impressed by Basilica of Sant' Apollinare in Classe  just outside the city. Like most of our visits the earlier experiences were better due to the small number of visitors. After our last trip in 2011 we decided not to ever return; all of the sacred spots are overrun by tourists and air travel resembles cattle being hauled to market.

At Aix-la-Chapelle Charlemagne built much more than a church and the location would became Aachen, Germany not only the favored residence of Charlemagne, but  known as the Royal Church of St. Mary at Aachen  during the Middle Ages. For 595 years, from 936 to 1531, the Aachen chapel was the church of coronation for 30 German kings and 12 queens. The church is today the Episcopal seat of the Diocese of Aachen.
aix palace


The Cathedral of Aachen (La Chapelle above) was not damaged during WWII, although other buildings of the original complex have vanished. Below is the Cathedral today.

Aachen Cathedral





Several artifacts included in this  first program are in the cathedral treasury, including the bust of Charlemagne (at the top of the page). Clark was most moved by the cross of Lothar, "To me the cross is one of the most moving objects to have come down to us from the distant past." In his autobiography, he was allowed to move the object from its case to be photographed and when he did he said  tears began to stream down his face.

cross of lothar cross of Lothar
  The hand of God places a wreath with dove in the center

"We have grown so used to the idea that the the Crucifixion is the supreme symbol of Christianity, that it is a shock to realize how late in the history of Christianity art it power is recognized. In the first art of Christianity it hardly appears; and the earliest example, on the doors of Santa Sabina in Rome it is stuck away in a corner, almost out of  sight." p.29

We were in Rome on Christmas day 1995 and joined pilgrims at St Peter's Square for an address by the Pope. From the balcony he said Merry Christmas in a number of different languages and when he did so the folks from that culture cheered. I thought it all rather silly until he said it in English and I let out a loud cheer, my string was pulled by the Pope. After the ceremony we walked across the Ponte Rotto,  where the outfall of the Cloaca Maxima opens into the River Tiber, and then on up the hill to Santa Sabina to see the doors, shown below.


doors more doors
(enlarged above) The wooden doors of the basilica are from 430-32 and eighteen of its wooden panels survived,  all but one depicting Biblical scenes. The crucifixion is at the  top left.


Clark was correct the crucifixion does not move the viewer at all, but the fact that a wooden door has lasted so long and that the biblical  stories have such durability is quite amazing. Behind the Basilica is an overlook of Rome and the Tiber. As it was a beautiful evening there were several Romans gathered there and suddenly they began exclaiming and pointing to the sky - performing angels.



I asked of anybody, "What are we seeing, Angels?" A friendly man near me said, "We Romans believe so." Then he added, "small birds that come down from the north."   Flaring starlings it turned out to be:  the Pope bids us Merry Christmas and starlings appear as Angels - Christmas in Rome. Now back to history, there is another early crucifix, but on a larger scale, that makes Clark's point.

gero The Gero Cross, c. 970, Cologne Cathedral, is the oldest large sculpture of crucified Christ in northern Europe. Commissioned by Gero, Archbishop of Cologne. In most earlier depictions Christ holds his head erect and looks straight ahead, or in some Carolingian examples looks down at the Virgin at the foot of the cross. The slumped head, and the twisted body, are not found in Byzantine art. In crucifixions of the Gothic period a still more slumped and curved figure of Christ, with knees bent sideways, was to become the standard depiction.
The first time I visited the cathedral in Cologne the simpler version (above) was in on the wall. On a subsequent  visit, somebody had jazzed Jesus up a bit.  Yikes! gero new


"We survived because, although circumstances and opportunities may vary, human intelligence seems to remain fairly constant, and for centuries practically all men of intellect joined the Church." ..."When the Irish monks came to Europe in about the year 600 they found Roman manuscripts in places like Tours and Toulouse. But the monasteries couldn't have become the guardians of civilisation unless there had been a minimum of stability : and this, in Western Europe, was first achieved in the Kingdom of the Franks."  ..."But the old idea that he (Charlemagne) saved civilisation isn't far wrong, because it was thorough him that the Atlantic world re-established contact with the culture of the Mediterranean world. There were great disorders after his death, but no more skin of our teeth. Civilisation had come through." p 18

2 The Great Thaw