Friday, 7 December 2012

My 2012 Christmas Card Contest

It's that time of year again, when I ideally like to choose a Black Magus image for my Christmas card. In the past I've used variants of my Adoration Rood Screen -  in whole and details, that worked for 2008 and 2009 and for 2010 I used the three sub-Saharan African Adoration card.

This year I hadn't a clue what to use so devised a particularly poor research technique -I googled The Three Kings followed by  Drei Könige and looked at what images turned up. I was not disappointed. I was inundated -  many clichés, much kitsch but a few did stand out.....

> A 15th Century Ethiopian Triptych

Madonna and Child triptych from fifteenth century Ethiopia, recently cleaned by the Ethiopian Heritage Fund.

Fifteenth Century Panel from Monastery of St. Stephen , Hayq, Ethiopia
Medium: Painted wooden panel: Size (central panel) approx : 36" x 24" Date: Fifteenth Century from the Monastery of Saint Stephen, Hayq, Ethiopia

This work was a total surprise quite unlike any image in the many hundreds the Google searches presented - visually stunning, ichnographically intriguing - I've seen nothing quite like it before. A nappy haired Jesus set in a medieval triptych frame, in a Greek icon composition surrounded by haloed saints and a donor - extraordinary conflation of concepts and ideas.

I plan to return to this work, to study it in more detail meanwhile I will leave it as a contender for my 2012 Christmas Card image.

> The Three Kings by Richard Hook

The Three Kings by the illustrator and artist: Richard Hook (1938–2010)

The Three Kings ,1972, Richard Hook (1938- 2010)
Medium: Pen & Ink on Board: Size: 6" x 6" (160mm x 140mm): Date: 1972
The illustration was used in the Look and Learn Annual 1972 and later sold from here

A dramatic, tight, compact work;  although the rest of Adoration scene  is out of picture its presence is sensed from  the united and intense gaze of the three magi all leaning, pressing  forward to present their gift to the infant  Christ – their gifts and bejewelled fingers indicating where Christ is to be found.
One composition discussion point is the location of the Black Magus at the head of the trio. The Black Magus image during the Renaissance  was conventionally at the rear of the trio, often isolated or separated by space or a barrier

> The 3 Wise Men by Hilke MacIntyre

An edition of 50 painted modern ceramic plaques portraying the three kings:

The 3 Wise Men, Hilke MacIntyre
Medium: ceramic relief, edition of 50: Size: 3 parts, each 11.5 x 5 cm  Date: Twenty-First Century

A lovely modern rendition of the three magi by Hilke MacIntyre  sadly (for me, not the artist!) it is sold out. I was intrigued that the artist moved the Black Magus around in the group as he hand painted each edition individually.

Interestingly, the MacIntyre's Magi gaze is directly ahead indicating that the viewer is the subject of that gaze or put another way they (we) are the Madonna and Child!

> and the Winner is.....Richard Hook's The Three Wise Men!
In the end it was an easy decision as I was totally enamoured by the drama in the piece, its modernist tension in the compressed picture plane is palpable - it's been my iPad Lock Screen and Wallpaper for the past month. 
So, friends and family will receive Richard Hook's The Three Wise Men printed by moo cards, delivered in a festive red envelope with an appropriately themed stamp.....hopefully sometime before the 25th!
..and some after thoughts.....

There were a number of images which didn't make the short list but nevertheless I found interesting:

The Post Office's 1994 Christmas 25p stamp:

Brussels Grand Place 2012  nativity scene:

The nativity scene in my Mum's nursing home's nativity scene which had two Virgins and two Josephs as well as not one Magus but three Black Magi and one white Magus, a very crowded Nativity!

This image wasn't a contender in fact it was a real shock - a blacked up Black Magus - St. Gordian Epimach, Germany receiving Angela Merkel Christmas 2011:

Sunday, 21 October 2012

Spoke at the British Library

I spoke last Friday Oct 19th at the British Library as part of their Readers Research program  the evening’s topic was chosen to coincide with Black History Month – Blacks in Renaissance Britain.

Miranda Kaufmann Presenting
I shared the platform with Dr Miranda Kaufmann ;  the session  was chaired by Dr Caroline Bressey from the UCL Equiano Centre.

I was surprised and delighted  to find the evening was a complete sell out – people had paid good money to hear me talk quite a novel experience; perhaps  testament to the growing interest in Blacks in this period.

The format of the evening was simple;  Miranda and I each gave a 20 minute talk followed by a question session from Caroline then it was thrown open to questions from the audience.

I spoke about my experience of writing my Open University Independent Essay in the summer of 2008 followed by an overview of the  essay - essentially the history of this blog. You can read a transcript here and download my presentation.

Miranda‘s talk was intriguingly entitled:

135 Africans  in a Bristol barn for week in 1590, or what I’ve Learned at the British Library...

It was both  entertaining and  interesting, as she revealed some of her findings from the British Library’s Archives. She presented  these 135  ‘Neagros’  with some matter of fact detail of their stay in Bristol she'd teased from the archives . For example the budget for their ‘victualls and diett’ was 4d – four old pence about 1.67 new pence –per man per day. I discovered later that’s  around £33 in today’s money . She also pointed out that this compared to 6d per day per man for the 32 ‘Portingales and Spaniardes’ taken into custody from the same ship at the same time.

The Q&A session raised a couple of issues I plan to consider further:
1 Questions  around black history what is it and what it means
2 Why African Ambassadors were sent to Europe's courts during the period, no Kings or Queens followed on?
Both will be the subject of forthcoming posts.

For more information about Miranda’s research see her web site. She has done some original and ground breaking work in discovering 350 Africans in Britain 1500 to 1640. Tantalizingly, I’ve had the privilege of access to parts of her doctoral  thesis on those 350 Africans so, I very much looking forward to the book when  it’s published.

One last point I discovered from Miranda’s presentation that she and I were doing our research at the British Library at the same time – Summer 2008 – yet didn’t actually meet till 2011. It would be quite useful  if the British Library could find some way of bringing  Readers on the same subject  together – if they , the Readers, want to that is(!) – a cross between a Dating Agency and Friends Reunited site based on Readers Research subjects, maybe?

All in all a great honour and privilege  to share my  thoughts and ideas on Blacks in Renaissance Europe with an interested  and engaging  fellow presenter , chair and audience at  the home of ‘the World’s Knowledge’.

Friday, 21 September 2012

Great Malvern's retouched Black Magus

The image of the Black Magus in Great Malvern Priory was first described   to me rather grandly as  ‘the first possible representation in Britain in the modern age of a [B]lack person’ When I finally saw an on-line version of the  image  I questioned its  Black presence,  as I will indicate, initially it did not tick all my boxes for it  to be considered a Black Magus. It was not until I saw the original image in Great Malvern Priory that I changed my mind and had my doubts allayed.
On-Line Image
The first version of this image I saw was on the web at Philip Wilkinson’s English Buildings blog , Philip describes the work’s composition  in some detail but makes no reference to any notable characteristics of the third Magus other than he is ‘raising his left hand.’Emeritus Prof David Bindman Prof Bindman on the other hand, makes the claim that the third Magus at the rear of the composition ‘ does seem to have darker face than the other figures'.  Oddly, considering his chapter on ‘The Black Presence in British Art: Sixteenth and Seventeenth centuries’ appears in a book entitled The Image of the Black Western Art, he does not include an  ‘Image’ of the work he claims to be ‘the first possible’ image. (I raised this omission with Prof Bindman you can read our correspondence here). 

I studied the on-line image and wasn’t convinced in fact I wrote to a friend:

This to my mind isn't a Black Magus as he does not look like any Black Magus I've seen.
He does not look black -  a little ruddy but his overall  complexion is almost as light as the other Magi
He has no flamboyant poise
He has no excessive jewellery
His clothing is not extravagant, it is far too similar to the other two magi - note the slit and leg
.....and he is not wearing an earring! 
The actual image I encountered  in Great Malvern Priory was very different from its on line doppelgänger.

Actually finding the Adoration  images's window in the Priory was not easy, as I had not done sufficient research prior to my visit. All that I brought with me was my understanding that there was an Adoration scene to be found  somewhere in Priory's stained glass windows.

It's an understatement to say that there is a lot of wonderful, colourful stained glass in the Priory. It wasn't quite looking for a needle in a hay stack - but it was close! With the help of the enigmatically titled but hugely helpful Deputy Custdos, I was able to find the Adoration scene amongst the North Aisle's stained glass and take my photographs

Great Malvern Stained Glass Image
The Great Malvern Priory Adoration scene is part of the now, solitary medieval Window in the North Aisle. Once there were five cusped gothic ogee lights/windows filled with nearly sixty biblical images illustrating Gospel history, dating from around 1490. The few plates that survived were collected in 1919 into the fourth window of the North  Aisle.

Medieval Window in North Aisle
The Annunciation * The Visitation * The Nativity
The Adoration * Jesus in the Temple * Temptation of Jesus
Jesus at the Pool of Bethesda * Healing the Sick * Healing a Dumb & Deaf Man
Healing the Leper and the Centurion's Servant * Marriage of Joachim & Anne * Annunciation of Anne

They were used to educate at time when few could read. The images were most likely taken from two widely distributed picture books at that time:
Biblica Pauperum (The Poor Man’s Bible)
Speculum Humanae Salvationis  (Mirror of Man’s Salvation).
These are the pattern books of the day; Jan Van Eyk was understood to have a copy of the Biblica Pauperum just like today Jack Vettriano  uses pattern books – but with very different out comes. Van Eyk is venerated by the art historians and critics while Vettriano's paintings are snubbed and critics are indifferent to his work.  

Adoration images are to be found in both books:

Biblica Pauperum - Adoration

Speculum Humanae Salvationis - Adoration
Interestingly the Speculum Humanae Salvationis  has a Black Magus…..another research opportunity! The  Adoration image above comes from a British Library  page from Biblica Pauperum. Great Malvern's Adoration composition is very similar to the Biblica Pauperum's Adoration

I would argue that when you compare the stained glass image with the web image you will be challenged to make the leap from the apparently translucent skin of the stained glass Magus to the dark swarthy skin of the web image. That difference in colour I believe is a result of their very different media. These colour differences are not in the skin of the third Magus but all over the image there are marked differences in a colour’s density and tone from one image to the other.

These differences are because one is a digital image, a photographic reproduction of a book cover while the other is a stained glass window. So we are comparing a photograph with a piece of stained glass.

One is viewed by reflected light while the other is viewed by transmitted light. 

Transmitted light can fundamentally change the way the stained glass image appears. This change in appearance is dependent on the colour, quantity and quality of the transmitted light, these changes produce the essential characteristic of stained glass's range of dazzling effects – radiant, lustrous,  dramatic – dependent on the light so sunny days, cloudy days each produces their own lighting effects.

Position of the Adoration Plate Glass

Sun's movement Over the Great Malvern Priory
So, a stained-glass window’s position in the church as well as the time of day and time of year all impact how the work appears: for example Great Malvern’s magnificent East Window – the largest in any parish church in England  – is an ‘arabesque of beautiful colour’ when viewed in the early morning sun.

The web image is a copy of a colour plate from a 1947 book on the Priory's Medieval Window which was also the cover of the book.   

Side by side comparison of the glass with the plate shows how the plate has been  modified. The plate’s colours appear flatter, more muted with none of the lustre of the stained glass. It could be argued that printing techniques  at that time (1947) could not capture these lighting subtleties found in stained glass.

Whoever prepared the plate went further,  almost painting by numbers filling colours, enhancing some lines and removing others – notably the horizontal dark line made by the grill protecting the window. Having said that when the plate was made there probably was no protective grill in place.

The most clumsy enhancement of the plate is the colouring of the Third Magus’s skin and for me the most devastating and telling is the painting over of the Black Magus’s  earring,  visible in the glass painted out  in the plate !

To conclude, I agree that despite his dress his position , his facial characteristics and his earring all indicate to me that this is a Black Magus. Whether or not he is the earliest image in Britain that’s another story!

Hamand, L.A. (1947) , The Ancient Windows of Great Malvern Priory Church, The Campfield Press, St. Albans
Rushforth, G. McNeil, (1936) Medieval Christian Imagery as Illustrated by the Painted Windows of Great Malvern
Priory Church, Oxford
Wells, K. (2009) Tour of Great Malvern Priory, The Friends of Great Malvern Priory, Great Malvern

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Ludlow's St Laurence's Gift Shop and its Black Magus

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.

                                                                                     The Black Magus highlighted

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.


An Aside......

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 exampleI own a Black Putti myself.