How Sir Kenneth Clark Defended Christian Civilization on PBS

What makes the classic series ‘Civilisation’ relevant to us today is that Clark got almost everything right.

Title card from Episode 1, “The Skin of Our Teeth” (YouTube)
Title card from Episode 1, “The Skin of Our Teeth” (YouTube) (photo: Screenshot)

Given its liberal political leanings, indebtedness to both huge corporations and the left-of-center NEA and NEH, it seems hard to believe—impossible, almost—that at one point in its relatively short history, the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) aired a 13-hour epic that was about as close to an Christian apologia as we are ever likely to see.

Civilisation: A Personal View by Kenneth Clark was one of those rare truth-in-advertising titles. Starting in spring 1969 Americans were introduced to Kenneth Clark, a Scottish art historian who headed up this “mini-series” in which he would explain what civilization was, and meant, to him. And why this was important to the millions watching on both sides of the Atlantic.

Clark (always called “K Clark” and later, “Sir”) was a polymath with a specialty in art. But in this program he took on music, literature, philosophy, politics, science, engineering, historiography, botany, and pretty much anything else that one would refer to when mentioning “civilization.”

One of those items inextricably tied to civilization is religion. Clark, at least nominally an Anglican—though one gets the feeling he’s in the T.S. Eliot and C.S. Lewis Anglo-Catholic camp—not only did not shy away from the subject, or worse try to include every major faith-system in some half-hearted attempt at “diversity”, but absolutely embraced it. “It” being Christianity in general and the Catholic Church in particular.

The series—which is still available both on DVD and Blu-Ray and on Netflix—traces what a priest-professor friend of mine would have called “the golden-strain of Christianity throughout the ages.” Starting with the fall of Rome, Clark very much subscribes to Thomas Cahill’s belief that the “Irish saved civilization” by keeping it alive on the Aran Islands and eventually re-evangelizing the mainland of Europe. The first episode (“The Skin of Our Teeth”) ends with the view from Skellig Michael, the almost uninhabitable rocky crag where Irish monks kept the faith, literally and figuratively.     

Clark, who comes off as a sort of entertaining British professor, had very little time for Islam (it is mentioned exactly once) and for faith systems like Judaism that did not produce great art or architecture (Hindus, Shintos, Buddhists don’t factor in much here, either). Though he refers to a “Russian Spring” in India in about the 4th century BC, for the most part it is Christianity that gets high marks not only for outstanding artwork (nobody doesn’t like that trio of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo da Vinci), but for its civilizing effects.

“The Great Thaw” (episode two) explores why the great Cathedrals were built—and maybe even more inexplicably, how. The Great Theologian, Peter Abelard is introduced as “a sort of prize-fighter in the world of theological argument” and Bishop Suger appears as one of the first “modern, international” men who built for the glory of God—and, without any false modesty, for themselves and their flocks. The very next episode opens with Chartres, the remains of the Abbey of Cluny, and a still-active Cistercian monastery at Moissac.

Not that Clark is uncritical of the Church—far from it. However, he is quick to point out that the history of Western civilization is, for the most part, the history of the Church—if not as a spiritual system, then as a force—what we might call the Church Militant or even, at its best moments, the Church Triumphant.

Episode three opens with God’s fool, St. Francis of Assisi—indeed, most of this episode is an encomium to Francis—and ends with the “greatest philosophical poet ever, Dante”. In between we meet the great painters Giotto and Masacio, both of whom not only painted almost exclusively religious themes, but were devout Catholics themselves.

If it seems like Clark is taking his time (we’re only up to the 13th century), it’s because Clarke had the time to take. And make of it whatever he himself wanted. While we are sort of used to this in things like TED talks—where an expert expatiates on their chosen subject—or even later PBS series (one thinks of Sr. Wendy Beckett on art, Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, Bill Moyers on everything from Poetry to Joseph Campbell’s The Power of Myth, and Ken Burns’ cookie-cutter approach to baseball, war, the Roosevelts, parks), it’s worth recalling that, prior to Clark nothing like this had been done on television. Ever. This was one single white, Anglo-Saxon man’s view of civilization as he saw and explained it — completely without apology to the civilizations of the East or Africa.

However, America does make an appearance (in the person of Thomas Jefferson), but here too it is stressed by Clark that Jefferson—who was about as close to a renaissance man as this country has ever produced—was adamant about the separation of church and state. Note: not only that they be separate, but that they be allowed to co-exist.

While Clark feels the “Reformation had to happen” he upbraids Luther for being a sort of “leader the German people are so anxious to find”—an obvious allusion to Hitler—and absolutely abhors the wars of religion and iconoclasm that destroyed so many of the great churches of Germany.

It must be remembered that Clark was not only an art historian—and the youngest director of the National Gallery in London—but also personally helped move much of the great artwork out of England’s capital during the non-stop German bombings of World War II and into the hinterlands of Wales. Clark had seen, first-hand, the horror of war and what a de-civilizing effect it had had. Also not to be forgotten: World War II had only been over for less than twenty-five years and Clarke seems almost paranoid that we were on the verge of World War III.

But perhaps what is most amazing about Kenneth Clark’s Civilisation is how well it has aged: the show went to VHS and Betamax, and is now available on Blu-Ray and DVD. Obviously this Scot had struck a nerve. (The companion book to the series went on to be a best-seller, too).

Clark even gives us a then-current “live” view of a papal audience with Paul VI, and time and again Clark returns to Rome as not only the cradle of civilization, but the bedrock of it as well.

The sweep, scope and score of Civilization is indeed remarkable—I’m amazed that no one did a CD of the music of the show as it contains everything from madrigal songs to Bach’s passion to Don Giovanni.

But what makes the series relevant to us today is that Clark got almost everything right: the Irish did save civilization; western Europe did produce a renaissance that no other civilization has equaled and, ultimately, the Church is still a relevant and civilizing force. While he gives high kudos to William Wilberforce for banning slavery in England (generations before it took a war in the United States to do the same thing), it should be recalled that the papacy had abhorred the slave trade since Pope John VIII (872-82). St. Thomas Aquinas held slavery to be sin, Pope Eugene demanded that slave owners free their slaves in 1435, and Pius II declared slavery a “great crime” in 1462.

And finally Sir Kenneth ends his epic series with an admonition that we be kind to one another. Not in some facile “I’m-OK-You’re-OK”, but in an active “we-must-build-hospitals-for-the-poor-and-needy” work of mercy sense.

Sister Wendy Beckett may have made art history by becoming a famous religious sister on PBS, but the ground was proved for her by Sir Kenneth Clark in his “personal view” of civilization—and of Christianity.