As art historian Keneth Clark says in episode 5 of his 1969 series Civilisation, revolutionary movements in the arts do not last long. The heroic age of Michelangelo, Raphael and Leonardo lasted less than twenty years. Indeed, Leonardo’s drawings of the world overwhelmed by water, shown at the end of the episode, are an indication, according to Clark, that the “golden moment [was] almost over.” For Episode 6, Clark moves North: for the first time in the series, it moves out beyond the old Roman Empire to talk, not of barbarians, but of civilisation.
But Clark does not seem to have much love for the Germans. He says of the Riemenschneider figures he discusses that “these faces reveal a more dangerous characteristic, a vein of hysteria.” When comparing Raphael’s portrait of a cardinal in the Prado (The Cardinal) in the Prado with Albrecht Dürer’s Oswald Krell, he describes the cardinal as a man of culture, balanced and self-contained. Krell, on the other hand, he describes as:
“on the verge of hysteria. Those staring eyes, that look of self-conscious introspection, that uneasiness, marvellously conveyed by Dürer through the uneasiness of the planes in the modelling – how German it is and what a nuisance it has been for the rest of the world.“
One might assert that his view of Germany is a 20th-century sentiment speaking through a man who has lived through both World Wars, and is maybe somewhat inappropriate for a discussion of the late 15th century. When Clark talks about “these destructive national characteristics,” he uses 19th-century concepts that barely fit the political or cultural constellation around 1500.
Clark says the North cared for the word, more than the image. His, fairly condensed, discussion of (Northern) Europe between circa 1450 and 1600, concentrates on three writers, and artists connected to them: Desiderius Erasmus, Martin Luther and Michel de Montaigne.
Erasmus is tied to both the utilisation of the printing press as a medium for the distribution of ideas for a large audience, as well as the artists Hans Holbein the Younger and Albrecht Dürer. Clark is dismissive of the idea of the printing press as a linchpin of civilisation, saying other civilisations got on very well without it. But he might have underestimated its power in this and later episodes in history. Hans Holbein is used mostly as an excuse to talk about Tudor England.
Luther functions as a model for the Reformation. Clark is critical of the Reformation, blaming it for the disappearance of figurative art in Northern Europe, its destructive tendencies and its lack of common decency between civilians. Much of this, he blames not on the ideas of the Reformation, but on the German mind, and goes as far to call it, in the end, necessary for the preservation of Western civilisation.
“But it had to happen. If civilisation was not to wither, or petrify, like the society of ancient Egypt, it had to draw life from deeper roots than those which had nourished the intellectual and artistic triumphs of the Renaissance. And ultimately a new civilisation was created – but it was a civilisation not of the image, but of the word.”
It is with Montaigne, that Clark ends “the heroic spirit of the Renaissance.”
“In the past, self-examination had been painful and penitential. To Montaigne, it was a pleasure, and as he says: ‘no pleasure hath any savour unless I can communicate it.'”
But where Montaigne invented the essay, to while away the isolation that the Wars of Religion “forced on the most civilised man in late sixteenth-century Europe,” Shakespeare translated the ideas of Montaigne to the stage. Clark ends Episode 6 with a scene from Hamlet (Act 5, Scene 1), because “one of the first ways in which I would justify civilisation, is that it can produce a genius on this scale.” Like Montaigne, Clark says, Shakespeare is a product of the break-up of Christendom:
“and yet I feel that the human mind has gained a new greatness by outstaring the absolute meaninglessness of human life.”