Category Archives: Television

Medieval Art and Architecture on TV

Currently, there are a number of shows airing on television and available online that feature medieval art and architecture:

  • How to Get Ahead: At Medieval Court: ‘Writer and broadcaster Stephen Smith finds out what it took to get ahead at the court of Richard II, who presided over the first truly sophisticated and artistic court in England.’ Features Paul Binski and Nigel Saul in the credits.
  • The Culture Show Special: Viking Art. On the occasion of the opening of the BM’s blockbuster exhibition on Viking Art, Andrew Graham-Dixon explores the splendours of Viking art which is defined by intricate artistic styles – distinctly Scandinavian yet influenced by interaction with other cultures.


  • The Plantagenets: Professor Robert Bartlett tells the story of England’s longest-ruling royal dynasty. Henry II forges a mighty empire encompassing England and much of France.

A Truthful Record: The Byzantine Institute Films

MSBZ004-02-04-05_NorthTympanum1The Image Collections and Fieldwork Archives (ICFA) at Dumbarton Oaks presents a new online exhibit entitled A Truthful Record: The Byzantine Institute Films. This exhibit aims to reveal the context of the films created by the Byzantine Institute between the 1930s and 1940s by combining them with archival records from the collection The Byzantine Institute and Dumbarton Oaks Fieldwork Records and Papers.

A Truthful Record features thirteen motion picture films from the Byzantine Institute, which are stored and preserved at ICFA: one of the Red Sea Monasteries in Egypt, eleven of the Hagia Sophia, and one of the Kariye Camii, both in Istanbul, Turkey. The color films created by the Byzantine Institute’s photographer Pierre Iskender provide significant testimony of the mosaics at Hagia Sophia and Kariye Camii and the techniques employed to uncover and conserve them. When combined with notebook entries written by Byzantine Institute fieldworkers such as Ernest Hawkins and the brothers Richard and William Gregory, the history of the films’ creation truly comes alive. Thomas Whittemore, who founded the Byzantine Institute in 1930, made wide use of the moving images, screening them for donors and patrons (such as Robert Woods and Mildred Bliss), the Byzantine scholarly community, and an interested general audience in the United States and Europe. The exhibit is divided into three sections that investigate how the films were made and how they were received by contemporary audiences: Style and Content,Technique, and Purpose and Reception. You can also explore the archival materials chronologically using a detailed Timeline.

BBC Two: Pilgrimage

l43-vaticano-110818192541_bigBBC2: Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve

For centuries pilgrimage was one of the greatest adventures on earth, involving epic journeys across the country and around the world. This series sees Simon Reeve retrace the exciting adventures of our ancestors. He learns about the forgotten aspects of pilgrimage, including the vice, thrills and dangers that all awaited travellers. He explores the faith, the hopes, desires, and even the food that helped to keep medieval travellers on the road.

1st Episode Simon Reeve embarks on pilgrimages across Britain, from Holy Island to Canterbury.

2nd Episode Simon Reeve travels from northern France to Spain, then crosses western Europe to Rome.

3rd Episode Simon Reeve travels from Istanbul across the Holy Land to Jerusalem.

For more information see

BBC Four: Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities


BBC 4: Byzantium: A Tale of Three Cities

Series in which historian Simon Sebag Montefiore traces the sacred history of Istanbul. Known as the ‘city of the world’s desire’, it’s a place that has been the focus of passion for believers of three different faiths – Paganism, Christianity and Islam – and for nearly 3,000 years its streets have been the battleground for some of the fiercest political and religious conflicts in history.

In three episodes Montefiore charts the rise of Istanbul from pagan trading post to capital of three empires and two religions, becoming not only holy but the most coveted city in the world.

For more information see

Television review: Tudor Monastery Farm

tudor_monestary_farm_600[1]Currently airing on BBC Two is Tudor Monastery Farm, a rather gentle, post-reality-era bit of television, continuing the popular franchise of Victorian, Edwardian and Wartime Farm. Although a little guilty of choosing the National Curriculum-friendly “Tudor” label over “Medieval” (admittedly however, Late Middle Ages Farm or Circa Fifteen-Hundred Farm lack a certain marketability), it remains a rather interesting little programme for a Medievalist Art Historian to have a look at on the iPlayer.

Unlike the modern-era Farms, authentic-looking locations are tougher to find. Mostly it is filmed at the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum in Sussex, a collection of relocated historic vernacular buildings that has a hyperreal theme-park fantasy feel of a Tudor Westworld. The Monastery itself is Downside Abbey in Somerset, a post-Reformation foundation of a Catholic Benedictine community with a spectacular (although unfinished) Gothic Revival church of 1882-1925. Perhaps as a concession to its post-Harry Potter magic, there is much filming of mysterious monkish goings-on in the cloisters of a former medieval abbey, Gloucester Cathedral.

St Teilo's church, Welsh National History Museum. (picture by Jacqueline Sheldon)

St Teilo’s church, Welsh National History Museum. (picture by Jacqueline Sheldon)

Finally, there is the reconstructed church of St. Teilo at St Fagans National History Museum near Cardiff, which after being moved had a full cycle of wall paintings reinstated, which while helpful in conveying both the gaudiness and crowded imagery of a late medieval church, it is ultimately a rather strangely sanitised facsimile.

Peter Ginn makes a wattle fence with a "Tudor fence expert" (inset, detail from Robert Campin's Seilern Triptych)

Peter Ginn makes a wattle fence with a “Tudor fence expert” (inset, detail from Robert Campin’s Seilern Triptych)

Joining the established presenter Ruth Goodman and stalwart from Victorian Farm Peter Ginn is the excellently-named Tom Pinfold, and together they demonstrate farming, cooking and craft processes, as well as taking part in the ritual of the late medieval Catholic church. In some ways, the programme is more interesting for an art historian to watch than the many medieval art programmes aired on BBC Four in the past decade (increasingly predictably hosted by Dr Janina Ramirez). For instance, making a wattle fence immediately reminds one of its depiction in medieval art, such as in the Seilern Triptych by Robert Campin in the Courtauld gallery, and the process of bell-founding of the stained glass window donated by that profession’s guild to the Cathedral of York Minster in the fourteenth century. The re-enactment of Christian rituals such as holy loaf and lay-led Palm Sunday processions, partway between Church and folk tradition, are also a lot of fun to see. All is done in good Blue Peter-fun with pristine make-up throughout: no diary-room style “I can’t stand another day on the Monastery Farm!” angst here, thankfully.

Tom Pinfold tries his hand at bell-making. Inset, the fourteenth-century Bell Founders' window at York Minster.

Tom Pinfold tries his hand at bell-making. Inset, the fourteenth-century Bell Founders’ window at York Minster.

It is somewhat surprising to see such a jolly evocation of a pre-Reformation Merrie England on the BBC at the moment. Recently, with Diarmaid MacCulloch’s documentary on Thomas Cromwell and Melyvn Bragg on William Tyndale, the BBC seems to have been rather consistently painting the sixteenth century as the point when the intellectual glory of the English Renaissance swept away broken old Catholic England and its greedy monasteries. After seeing Diarmaid stand in the ruins of Hailes Abbey trying to convince us that its destruction was “a good thing” it is welcoming to see Tudor Monastery Farm as showing life under a monastery in late Medieval England as a happily functioning society rather than rotten and awaiting Dissolution. But then, we still have three episodes to go…

Tudor Monastery Farm is airing at 21:00 on BBC Two. The whole series is currently available on series catch up on the BBC iPlayer until one week after the last episode, i.e.: until the 25th December.