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Facial recognition

09 October 2015


THERE was far more religion than I had expected in BBC2’s excellent The Face of Britain by Simon Schama (Wednesday of last week). His earliest example was the beautiful medieval wall-paintings in a pilgrims’ hostel at Piccotts End, Hertfordshire — a rare survival of pre-Reformation art, and evidence of the way in which, in those happy days, we surrounded ourselves with images of God and his saints.

Here, the jihadist zeal of the Puritans could not be clearer: while the figures were permitted to survive, the visages have been violently scored out. They have, literally, been de-faced.

Elizabeth I filled this void: her series of portraits were conceived as icons, her face a symbolic mask rather than a living likeness, her costume dense with emblematic allusion and hidden meaning.

Such symbolism was taken up by royalists after the execution of Charles I: the widely disseminated, although secret and illegal, printed image portrayed him as a humble Christian saint, spurning with his foot the royal crown while fixing his gaze on the martyr’s crown.

This was a delightful journey through English portraiture; Schama wittily and affectingly demonstrated his conviction that the art illuminates not only the triple contest, as he put it, between sitter, artist, and public, but also the unfolding sense of our national identity through history.

Welcome to the Mosque (also BBC2, Wednesday of last week) introduced us to a place where portraiture is, of course, considered abhorrent to God. Robb Leech followed up his earlier films about his stepbrother, who converted to Islam and was imprisoned for acts of terrorism, with this exploration of the daily life of the mosque in Whitechapel, in east London (ELM).

What he revealed was fascinatingly unexceptional: those who organise and carry out the daily round of worship are humorous, friendly, and normal. If their beliefs and practices seem alien, they, as people, are not (as any outsider would discover if they ventured into your church or mine).

We gained a little insight into the range of Islam: one visiting imam confided that the ELM was particularly conservative — its rigid segregation between the sexes, and its refusal to engage with contemporary London culture were not, he thought, appropriate expressions of today’s Islam.

While Leech was filming, the news broke of the three schoolgirls who travelled secretly to join IS. The frustration of the mosque officials in trying to persuade the media that the young women, although members, were acting in a way that was contrary to what the ELM teaches, felt familiar — just like us trying to convince people that the millennial convictions of Miss Smith are not what we promulgate in church, even though she does turn up to evensong.

Everyone at the mosque was horrified at the flight of the three young women. Their attempts to persuade them to return and the pastoral support they offered the bewildered families were immensely moving — and perhaps the best TV evidence yet of the abhorrence of ordinary Muslims for the obscenities of the so-called caliphate.

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