Once a year for the past few years I’ve been on a walking weekend, around this time , with five friends of a certain age who share the vagaries of a lived life with an interest in life , the Universe and everything – a chance to walk and talk, drink and talk and eat and talk.
St Laurence Ludlow Parish Church
This year we went to Ludlow ‘the loveliest town in England’ if Sir John Betjamn is to be believed , ‘ an architecturally, beautiful and thriving market town [whose] street layout remains essentially that of a mediaeval town’ according to the Visitor Centre’s leaflet.
Those epithets and the beautiful walks in the surrounding hills with their many spectacular views went some way to answering the question on my mind ‘Why Ludlow?’ However, that question was completely answered when I found a Black Magus in Ludlow’s historic parish church St Laurence ‘cathedral of the Marches’!
Even though it was given five stars by Simon Jenkins England's Thousand Best Churches, one of only 18 such churches which made his long list from England’s 8,000 plus churches, I initially left St Laurence’s disappointed not just because I was unable to find a Black Magus but I found the church over renovated, over restored and over conserved. Coincidentally the cover of Jenkin's 2000 paperback edition of his guide takes its cover's details from the upper registers of St Laurence's Palmers' Window
For me , St Laurence was all little too bright and shiny, cleaned and polished and beautifully presented. None of the patina, wear and tear with a some dirt and a little decay to be found in other 600 year old plus English country churches. I believe the overly polished presentation reflects the central part St Laurence has played in this wealthy community – the money has always been there for the church’s upkeep.
In St Laurence I was minded of the Queen’s Gallery just beside Buckingham Palace where the immaculate, pristine appearance of, not just, the building and its staff but also the overly restored, renovated and conserved paintings makes for a clinical, sterile environment lacking in any distinctive character or personality.
The nativity Group with the Black Magus the middle of the three Magi on the right
I found the Black Magus in a photo taken not in the Church but, in its well stocked Gift Shop - seemingly an integral part of the Church. I took the photo to record a nativity collection similar in concept to a collection of figures I had seen in Dortmund, Germany . However, Ludlow’s Nativity Scene’s was cheaper and was plastic not wood like Dortmund’s putting it in a different (lower) quality league and crucially it appeared not to have a Black Magus., as at first glance all the kings seemed white.
However , later, whilst examining the picture I was surprised and delighted to spot the earring on the middle Magus then I became aware of his slightly darker skin colour compared to the other two Magi. I had found a Black Magus in St Leonards so the visit was not without its reward.
Ludlow Magus (centre) compared with two carved Black Magi / König Mohr
Ludlow’s Black Magus was in the same style of other contemporary carved and painted Black Magus - König Mohr brought for me as a present at the Christmas Market in Dortmund.
There is a Germanic tradition cum industry of carving Nativity scene characters – Holy Family, Kings & Comets, Angels, Shepherds and Children, Animals and Sables - whose roots go back centuries. Generations of wood carvers have been involved in this family business have a look here or here – the spirit of Tilman Riemenschneider continues to this day. From today’s carvers one can pay as little as 20 Euro for a 3.5inch high plain finish König Mohr or nearly 3,000 Euro for a hand painted 36inch high Konig.
Stalls selling theoe carved biblical characters play a central part in the Germany's Christmas Markets one of the oldest is Holzschnitzerei -Josef Albl - whose catalog's breadth and depth is breath taking and the company traces its roots directly from 1556 to this very day!
Ludlow’s Black Magus is of great interest to me as is shows how a tradition which dates back to the fifteenth century is very much alive not just in Germany the home of the König Mohr but here in the UK.
There is a Black angel in the carved Baroque version of the Nativity scene. Raphel’s putti have been transformed into an entire angelic putti orchestra, for example. I own a Black Putti myself.