THERE were two Christians, two Muslims, two atheists, and a Jew. It might sound like the opening line
of a fatally over-extended bar-room joke, but in fact it’s the line-up for Pilgrimage: The road to Istanbul (BBC2, Fridays), our national broadcaster’s sole recognition that the season of Lent holds some significance in the lives of Britain’s millions of Christians (more of whom, remember, worship on Sundays than go to Premier League matches on Saturdays — all I’m asking for is parity with Match of the Day).
The pandemic has led them to rush out Sunday Worship (BBC1), excellently led by cathedral deans and with (unfortunately) patched-in interpolations from the Songs of Praise back catalogue. But this takes some determination to find: The Guardian/Observer refuses so far to include it in its TV listings.
Our pilgrims are following sections of the Sultan’s Trail, leading from Vienna to Istanbul, set up as a reversal of the Ottoman road of conquest as a route for interfaith fellowship and understanding. So far, they’ve encountered generous hospitality, Serbian Orthodox worship, and a former concentration camp still marked by the mass murder of Jews.
The regular conversations about faith and religion are ill-informed and jejune — but there is infectious goodwill and willingness to learn. The most significant, converting, moment so far was the Serbian village feast that they enjoyed after the liturgy for a local saint’s day: a bitter reminder of that which we are presently denied, the soul’s basic need for table fellowship.
We know what Jesus looked like, according to The Art Mysteries with Waldemar Januszczak (BBC4, Tuesdays). He sought to persuade us that in Van Gogh’s Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear, the supremely religious artist portrayed himself as
the Christ of the Passion, rejected and reviled. The bandage alludes to Jesus’s loincloth, and the Japanese print of three geishas on the wall refers to the Marys at the crucifixion, one of whom, of course, the Magdalene, is by tradition a prostitute. It made good sense to me.
The last episode of James Fox’s four-part documentary The Age of the Image (BBC4, Mondays) focused on the paradox that photographic images simultaneously convince us that something is or was real, while being as open to fakery, illusion, and fantasy as any oil painting. The hyper-reality of movies makes us react to the most extreme events by feeling that they are more like films than reality.
In far-off days when visiting the Louvre was possible, most of us didn’t look at the Mona Lisa: we took a selfie of it over our shoulder. Without the digital image, we no longer trust whether we were actually (profoundly loaded word) there or not. Outside the image, our lives barely exist.