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Look to the north

04 March 2016

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HOW do you secure your place in heaven? In last week’s episode of BBC4’s The Renaissance Unchained (Mondays), Waldemar Januszczak, the Cheeky Chappie of art historians, reminded us of one of the more agreeable methods: commission a devotional picture of great piety, and ensure that, among the adoring company depicted, your own portrait is prominent.

However dubious we may think this as soteriological theory, the practice resulted in some of the most glorious art works that delight and inspire us today — and even move us to faith. This splendid series sets out to debunk our usual narrative of the Renaissance, and, in particular, to jettison Vasari’s thesis that things really began to get serious only with a rediscovery of the classical arts of Greece and Rome, and the arrival of artists able to emulate and even surpass their masterpieces, in Italy, with Italian artists.

Not so, says Januszczak: just look at the magnificent paintings produced earlier in the north; and he starts not in Florence, or Siena, but in Bruges. Van Eyck was, 30 years before Leonardo was born, creating works of unparalleled acute observation and inspired glory. How dare they be labelled “Flemish Primitives”, he expostulated.

Northern Europe is the place to look for the first flowerings of a new realism in art — possible not because painters and sculptors longed to emulate the classical statues being unearthed all over Rome, but because scientific advances in optics, lenses, and spectacles enabled them to see far more clearly for the first time.

The second episode deigned to cross the Alps into the more familiar territory of Assisi, Giotto, and Simone Martini. What I so value in these programmes is the unabashed exposition of Christian iconography and theology as serious subjects and inspirations, to be taken seriously even when they are not expressions of your personal faith.

You will be awakened out of your post-Sunday-evensong doze by the violence and gore depicted in The Night Manager (BBC1). This glossy version of a John le Carré espionage thriller has at its heart vital ethical conundrums: how far is it right to act against all the moral norms — with dishonesty, betrayal, violence, even murder — if that is the only possible way of destroying an even greater evil? Must we turn a blind eye to appalling transgressions by individuals and nations if, by opposing them, we open the floodgates of even worse destruction?

The secret arms-dealer Richard Roper (Hugh Laurie) appears to be a philanthropist and aid donor: the only way to expose his evil is for the hero, Jonathan Pine (Tom Hiddlestone), desperate to avenge his lover’s brutal murder, to worm his way into the inner circle. In doing so, however, he has to turn himself into a conscience-free criminal. It’s horrid, but very well done.

More gore and violence in Stag (BBC2, Saturdays); but, this time, it is black comedy. A bunch of City yahoos have arranged, as part of their number’s stag weekend, to stalk and kill a deer in the Highlands: but their arrogance leads their guide to abandon them in the wilderness, where they are murdered, one by one. Their only hope lies in the despised outsider, the bride-to-be’s brother, the butt of their jokes. Will he save them? Do we care?

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