An architect equipped with a saw and a scalpel

The manger maker Lutz Kuhl is a master of his trade. Over and over again, new versions of the representation of the birth of Christ see the light of day in his workshop in Annweiler—with great attention to detail, and with unusual tricks.

Everything in this Italian cottage is made by hand. The brown window shutters, the pinky-grey plaster and even the tiles on the roof. Lutz Kuhl shapes each of the tiny tiles of rigid foam, rolls them along a pencil and paints them. Under the wooden roof of the neighbouring barn, Mary and Joseph look at their child: wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. It’s the details that matter, when Lutz reconstructs the scene of the birth of Jesus—be it in a cottage near Naples, in a Palatinate half-timbered barn or, true to the Bible, in the Orient. An average of 60 hours pass between the birth of the idea and the completion of the manger; it may, however, take even much longer. Lutz is not a person you can rush: “The trickier it gets, the more I calm down.”

Lutz is not a person you can rush: “The trickier it gets, the more I calm down.”

In a bright room in the basement of his house in Annweiler, Lutz potters about with his mangers. With colours and saws, with timber and rigid foam, with a glass full of oregano and with a bottle of beer. Figures stored in drawers wait for their cue. Brushes in all shapes and colours lie on the table. The completed masterpieces are lined up in illuminated shelves. Lutz is a master car mechanic by profession. However, you’re wrong, if you think that his earlier profession and his later vocation don’t have much in common. His job in the car repair shop used to be diverse and varied. And so is his work with mangers. He starts off with a power saw in the garden to cut a piece of timber to size until he finally picks up a scalpel to do the precision work.

Lutz is an architect – equipped with colours and saws, with timber and rigid foam, with a glass full of oregano and with a bottle of beer.

It all began some 30 years ago. Back then, Lutz used to fiddle about a lot on his train set in his leisure time. One day, his children asked him to give them a manger. From then on, one thing led to another. His relatives began to take notice of his works and he went on and on. “I made mangers one after another until 2012. Then, I realized I was stagnating.” So he started to train as a course director; in 2015, he was awarded the title of Krippenbaumeister (master manger maker) by a Bavarian manger supporters association; he has exhibited and sold his works and equipment on the Landau Christmas market since 2014; and he has passed his knowledge on to future manger makers in cooperation with the Volkshochschule adult education centre in Annweiler am Trifels since 2018.

The depiction of the birth of Christ belongs to the Christmas time at all places where the incarnation of God is celebrated. According to the ‘Maranatha’ mangers museum in the Italian village Luttach, mangers have become customary over a period of some centuries. Saint Francis of Assisi, who was the first to reconstruct the birth of Jesus in a forest and with real animals in 1223, is said to be the father of the manger. In 1289, the architect Arnolfo di Cambio made a manger for the Sistine Chapel in Rome. During the baroque period, mangers saw their first heyday: as a place of contemplation or for educational purposes by way of illustration of the biblical story.

Leaves made of oregano and icicles made of melted glass

When in the 18th century the story of Jesus’ birth had been embellished and described in greater detail, mangers were no longer reserved for churches. They reached the living rooms of the people. And they became works of craftsmanship, in Portugal, Poland, in the Alps—or in the Palatinate. Home-loving manger makers generated the concept of the local manger: They removed the birth scene from a barn in Bethlehem and integrated it in the backdrop of their own environment. The elementary constellation, however, has always remained the same: Mary, Joseph and the Christ child are at the heart of the manger.

Lutz has remained faithful to manger making for 30 years. How many he has made in this period? He hasn’t counted them. Probably five new specimens per year. Small ones, large ones, with a Middle Eastern or a local backdrop. And always with a perfectionist’s edge to them. “The most important thing is that the manger looks true to life.” The native of the Palatinate buys the figures in South Tyrol, but everything else is manufactured at home in Annweiler. Trees, for example, are made of dead wood received from a bonsai nursery. Lutz conjures new life onto them with leaves from oregano and spray adhesive. The icicles that hang down from the roof of the snow manger are made of melted glass. To make door hinges, he wraps little metal plates around nails. The pigment paint is mixed with beer, because beer makes a good binding agent.

To make door hinges, he wraps little metal plates around nails.

Old wooden shingles are like “gold for manger makers,” because of their unique patina. And proportions matter: For a good manger maker, it’s not compatible with tradesman ethics, when Joseph equals the height of the roof. So, Lutz uses a manger metre. This table sets the right scales. If Joseph is twelve centimetres tall, the house should be 15 centimetres inside, for example. “This way, you can calculate everything,” says the architect, “be it a chair or a window ledge.”

Lutz uses a manger metre. This table sets the right scales.

Lutz has his mind on mangers a lot, even when he is not in his workshop. Like during his vacation in Bavaria or at the Lake Garda. “I always keep cave.” His backpack sometimes adds weight, when he makes a tour on his mountain bike, because he collects driftwood or pieces of olive trees that he uses to make root mangers, in which Mary and Joseph find shelter under a natural roof. He has recently completed a particularly beautiful specimen—made of a gnarled piece of oak from the Palatinate Forest in this case.

Belt production is not for Lutz. “I can’t be hurried, otherwise fun is gone.” In fact, this makes the secret of his success: Although he does make mangers upon request once in a while, he only makes what he enjoys making. The masterpiece from his course director training decorates his own living room during the Christmas season. “I have a hard time letting go of my mangers. But at one point, I had to—the shelf is simply getting overloaded and then I have to sell a couple of them.” There is no shortage of ideas anyway. Lutz collects all parts for the various projects in shoeboxes. And when the work with all its details has finally been completed after many hours, the architect enjoys sitting down in front of his new piece with a glass of spritzer. And takes a close look at it. Really calmly and really closely.


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