This article was written on 28 Nov 2012, and is filled under Art Documentaries.

The Dark Ages: An Age of Light BBC Four, Review

Art documentaries and their makers like to focus on the same type of art that attracts the highest numbers of visitors to galleries – the Impressionists; Picasso, Matisse….art with a capital “A”, produced by great masters so famous they go by a single name.

The exceptions to this rule have been a welcome change to a genre that risks becoming unoriginal – ironic, I know, given that “original” – with all its connotations, is so central to art. Earlier this year the welcome change was provided by  A History of Art in Three Colours. Directed by Matt Hill and presented by Dr James Fox it did away with a number of well-established ways in which you can talk about art.

Now comes another great art documentary – The Dark Ages: An Age of Light, directed and presented by Waldemar Januszczak who is no stranger to the great artist/ well-known movement theme with previous documentaries on Picasso, the Impressionists, Gauguin and Van Gogh.

This time he focuses on an area of art which is neglected at best and underestimated at worst – Christian art produced in the Middle Ages. Nothing could be further from the typical art documentary subject not least because the overwhelming majority of artists and craftsmen from the period are known to us only through their work, not by their name.

In many ways this programme is a logical next step in BBC’s arts programming after Alastair Sooke’s Treasures of Ancient Rome. After Sister Wendy’s brilliant take on Christian art, it was about time we saw someone else’s.

Relic boxes – beautiful, bejewelled and sacred to many Christians, are discussed alongside churches, sculptures and mosaics. The types of art included in the first of what will be a four-part series is wide-ranging and so is the geographic and historic context in which it was produced.

In the first episode The Clash of the Gods Januszczak brilliantly maps the stylistic influences which shaped early Christian art. Juxtaposing ancient and early medieval art, he makes a strong case for the source of much early Christian artistic  influence.

But what I liked most about this programme was the way Januszczak framed his topic in the beginning and the object he used to do so. In a true Christian secretive manner – I am not going to tell you what the object was. What I will tell you is that even though it wasn’t an art work, it contained all characteristics of Christian art – the interrelatedness of word and image and the reliance on symbols, meaningful only to those in the know.  It was simple and brilliant and after this marvellous introduction there was no way I wasn’t watching. And so should you.

Watch it by clicking here. It will be available on iPlayer until 8:59PM Tue, 25 Dec 2012. Available in the UK only.





  1. C. Edwards
    December 7, 2012

    If only we had more programmes and more presenters like this. The programme took us from Rome, to Ravenna and Syria showing beautiful buildings and works of art. So thought provoking. I've only seen the first one and look forward to the others.

  2. Rosemary
    December 13, 2012

    How could the desert bath house decoration be Islamic. I thought it was forbidden in Islam to represent a human form, thus usually flowers,treets etc ?? Excellent programmes though.

  3. Shaam
    December 15, 2012

    While I appreciate Waldemar Januszczak's main objective, the illumination of a not so very dark era in human history, there are elements of the first two episodes that appear to be contradictory and opportunistically selective. Why, for example, were the Arian images of a youthful, beardless Jesus used in the first episode to demonstrate the Apolline (as opposed to Jovial) nature of the earliest representations of the Christ, and the same images used in the second episode to demonstrate the stark contrast between Arian and Nicaean understandings of the Son's divinity in relation to the Father? Sure, an image can tell you many things, but Januszczak's own words betray him:

    "The reason this Christ looks so unfamiliar, and even peculiar, is because he's an Arian Christ and not a Catholic one."

    Why was this not stated in the first episode, rather than misuse the image as part of a clumsy stroke of a broad brush to paint all of early Christianity in the same light? Furthermore, why were the contrasting murals in the Basilica of Sant'Apollinare not used? These would have demonstrated that the Arians did in fact worship a definitively masculine, bearded Christ; only it was the Christ of the Passion, the suffering servant of Isaiah's prophecy. But Januszczak wanted to make two points: that the earliest portrayal of Jesus in art was based upon the youthful Apollo; and that the suffering Christ is a much later invention. His own words again:

    "What you never see in these very first examples of Christian art is a Jesus who's suffering, in pain, covered in blood, like the one on the Turin Shroud. That Jesus doesn't turn up in art for a thousand years or so; because the tortured Jesus is a creation of the Middle Ages, an expression of Medieval guilt and terror."

    The Sant'Apollinare murals are featured briefly in the first episode, just one image of a youthful Christ raising Lazarus from the dead, and used only to demonstrate the convention of portraying Lazarus as mummified. In the second episode, both sides of the Basilica are shown, but the maturity of the Christ of the Passion is not mentioned once. True, there is no representation of the flagellation and crucifixion, so no blood, guts, and gore; but this Christ is undeniably a man, and undeniably more Zeus-like than Apolline.

    I can understand what Januszczak is trying to do. He is right to demonstrate the links between Pagan representations of the gods and Christian representations of Jesus and Mary; but, by oversimplifying the story, he seems to have lost some credibility. Unless, of course, I'm missing something crucial, and that is entirely likely!

  4. Luke and Jim
    December 16, 2012

    Luke: Did you know that you can make an octagon from two intersecting squares?
    Jim: Divine!
    Luke: Well, that's what Waldo thought. And then he said that the octagon provides a symbolic bridge between heaven and earth.
    Jim: I'm with him on the 'bolic'
    Luke: And he showed a 'dark age' dome with 'carefully calculated' proportions
    Jim: What were they?
    Luke: one-to-one
    Jim: Wow. That is divine
    Luke: and imbued with secret meaning
    Jim: If only we had such insight

  5. Fr David Rowett
    December 18, 2012

    Re: the 'grave goods' comment tonight: perhaps a more nuanced remark would have been in order, given that the grave goods of St Cuthbert (who is probably Christian) are well-documented: the Stoneyhurst Gospels, recently acquired from the Jesuits, was found in his coffin, the pectoral cross is a delight, and the portable altar, the vestments and the liturgical comb all rather give the lie to 'Christians don't have grave goods'! When I go, there are instructions that a chalice and paten go with me!

  6. Hugh Aldous
    December 18, 2012

    The Dark Ages – An Age of Light
    I have just looked at this last episode and I think it is one of the most marvellous films that I have seen for a long time. All the artistry and jewelled collections left by the Anglo Saxons and the Vikings are absolutely exquisite and serve to highlight the glorious Gospel of Jesus Christ and power of the Word in the Bible. This type of program will, I think, do more to renew Christian belief in our generation than a lot of modern Christian music.

  7. phil h
    December 19, 2012

    Hug a Hun (or a Vandal)

    Some bloke on the telly the other day
    Was doing a thing on 'Barbarian Art';
    He was true to type in every way,

    A North London intellectual; smart.
    And I thought 'now this just has to be fun
    Watching some clever Left Wing arty fart

    Singing the praises of Attila the Hun';
    So I settled down on a comfy spot
    With the rest of the programme still to run.

    The clever bloke talked 'til I lost the plot
    But I had to admit, weighing minus and plus,
    That the Huns and Goths may have done a lot
    More than the Romans ever did for us.

  8. Cedders
    December 23, 2012

    In the recent episode of the the Dark Ages, an age of light – he says that Lindisfarne is on the North coast of Britain. To me thats the top coast of Scotland, eg Sutherland. Lindisfarne is off the Northumbrian coast which is NE. He's a bit slap dash with some of the facts.

  9. Jules
    December 29, 2012

    What was the church in Sicily with the amazing early Christian mosaics in Episode 1. I can't find any information on this so would be grateful for some help here

    • Lesly
      January 2, 2013

      Monreale – north coast of Sicily. Wonderful place.

  10. Gary Davies
    January 11, 2013

    enjoyed the series BBC4 is the best channel on TV

    great culture
    great history
    great science

    keep up the good work…despair at the quality of much television post General Election…endless repeats, antique programmes,appalling dull sit coms…sports coverage and Nature Progs great……news often seems to have heavy bias towards the ones who created the economic mess I.e. the markets

  11. PetyaArtyculate
    January 14, 2013

    Thank you to everyone who commented on The Dark Ages. It has been interesting to see different points of view – thank you for the excellent points made.

    I am hoping we can carry on discussing more art programmes – I have just written a review on History of Art in Three Colours and can't wait to read and respond to your comments!


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