Art That Made Us looks at 1,500 years of work

Thursday:Art That Made Us; (BBC2, 9pm)

Antony Gormley in his studio, London
Antony Gormley in his studio, London

From the Bayeux Tapestry to Stormzy at Glastonbury, works of art, literature, design and music have helped to reflect life in Britain and shaped how we see ourselves and our national story.

The landmark eight-part series Art That Made Us is setting itself the very big task of exploring 1,500 years of artworks and using them to tell an alternative history of the British Isles.

If that sounds virtually impossible, it will be narrowing it down slightly to works that emerged during eight dramatic eras, including the trauma of the Black Death in the Middle Ages, the Industrial Revolution, the World Wars and the emergence of a new youth culture and more multicultural society.

It will also see a mix of leading British creatives joining cultural historians to explore what the key works mean.

The series begins in the turbulent era that followed the Roman occupation of Britain. It was once known as the Dark Ages, but this episode shows us that it led to the creation of some extraordinary art that continues to have a hold over our imaginations and offers a fascinating glimpse into a time when Celtic, Anglo-Saxon and Norse peoples fought for supremacy.

Sculptor Antony Gormley, who gave us the Angel of the North, comes face to face with Spong Man, a clay figure that once adorned a 5th-century funeral urn and finds out what he has to tell us about early Anglo-Saxon settlers and their beliefs.

There’s also an insight into the people who were resisting the Anglo-Saxons as actor Michael Sheen performs the 7th-century Welsh poem Y Gododdin.

Scottish artists Dalziel & Scullion take a closer look at the monumental Aberlemno Stones (ca.500-800 AD) which were believed to mark the hard-fought boundary line of the Pictish kingdom, and artist Cornelia Parker tries to untangle the mysteries of the Staffordshire Hoard.

Those last two works fuse pagan and Christian imagery, and the spread of Christianity – along with the rise of a powerful new language, English – is also evident in the elaborate Lindisfarne Gospels explored by the Rev Richard Coles

Maria Dahvana Headley looks at how the language is used in the epic poem Beowulf, while map artist David McCandless discover what the Mappa Mundi reveals about the British Isles’ new sense of its place in the wider world.

Finally for this episode, graphic novelist Woodrow Phoenix explores what the Bayeux Tapestry says about the Norman conquest and the sudden end of the Anglo-Saxon Era.

And if that still feels like an awful lot to get through in just one episode, it’s worth noting that Art That Made Us isn’t just restricted to one series.

Museums, libraries, archives and galleries across the UK are joining forces with the BBC for a month-long festival of the same name, giving viewers a chance to explore the creativity held in their collections.

BBC4 has also been getting in on with the act with four new episodes of Inside Museums, focusing on the National Slate Museum, Llanberis, Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow, the Ulster Folk and Transport Museum and the Whitworth Art Gallery in Manchester.