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


Ebunsea said...

Fabulous bit of research. I have to say the evidence you presented provide a good conclusion and one I would agree with.

Olalekan Alabi said...

Well done, Micho. Well researched! I quite agree with your conclusion.

Philip Wilkinson said...

A fascinating and valuable bit of research. I think juxtaposing the two versions of the face of the Magus – book image and the photograph of the stained glass – is especially telling, and clinches your argument.