Nativity scenes capture the season’s true meaning, and this year’s Knights of Columbus Museum annual crèche exhibition shares the message well.
“Christmas in Asia” includes more than 100 crèches of the Holy Family from 22 countries from the Middle East to Japan and the Philippines.
At first, it’s almost astonishing to see Mary and Joseph dressed as Chinese peasants or wearing colorful Thai costumes, or Jesus with black hair cut into a Japanese child’s traditional style. At the same time, some of the scenes reflect European styles from the Renaissance to the 20th century.
But seeing the Nativity in these ways indicates the universal fascination of the birth of Jesus.
Museum director Larry Sowinski points out that many Asian Catholics’ Christmas traditions arose thanks to colonization.
Typically, the influence traces to European missionaries who came to these countries, according to Marianist Father Johann Roten, director of the Marian Library-International Marian Research Institute at the University of Dayton (Ohio) and initiator and former director of Crèches International. At first, the new Christians copied traditional European art, like the Renaissance Nativity from the Philippines.
That has changed, especially over the past 20 to 30 years. “Since Vatican II and afterwards, the Asian churches have seen a retrieval of the cultural identity, which leads to a strong impact of that identity in the visual elements on the Catholic religion,” Father Roten says.
A number of the crèches and Madonna and Childs are on loan from Crèches International. Others come from the Maryknoll Priest and Nuns and private collections, including that of Father Tim Goldrick, pastor of St. Nicholas of Myra Church in North Dighton, Mass., and vice president of the international organization Friends of the Crèche.
Father Goldrick points out the sparkling, two-dimensional crèche from India made of cut tin and covered with sparkling rhinestones is a very traditional art form there.
“The figures themselves — the cutouts, the shapes — are used in silhouettes for plays,” he explains. So are the lightly painted, simple two-piece Japanese figures with cylindrical bodies and round heads. These puppets are used to tell the Christmas story to children.
On the other hand, a wooden Nativity scene with movable figures from Sri Lanka is painted in various colors.
In contrast to these, one very large, elaborate Chinese Nativity scene in natural flaxen-toned wood has figures carved in high detail. The Holy Family has very visible Chinese features. So does the stable’s architecture. The whole scene is finely carved, down to the expressions on the Holy Family’s faces and to the hair on the donkey and sheep.
The Chinese crèches indicate other noticeable adaptations: Each has one or more trees and indigenous animals.
According to Father Roten, each type of tree — gingkos, for instance — is reminiscent of a special gift like health or longevity. And because of the traditional importance of animals in the culture, animals like water buffalo appear frequently in these Nativity sets.
Several Asian crèches have figures dressed in native costumes. Dress codes are local and cultural.
Other crèches show Thai figures in full costume set among a cultural dance drama, an India gurka band serenading the Baby Jesus, Turkish folk musicians playing for the newborn Savior, and the Japanese Holy Family with Joseph protecting Mary and Jesus, all in traditional Japanese costume.
Native materials play a role in the scenes.
Nearly every Nativity from the Philippines — the third-largest Catholic country in the world — has elongated figures, indicative of the Spanish colonial influence. Father Roten noted that Spanish Viceroyal art expressed nobility through elongated necks.
Certainly, notable standouts of this exhibit are the examples from the Holy Land, where the real Nativity took place. The small statue of the Holy Family carved of olive wood is worthy of the Vatican Museums.
Among the exhibit’s crèches made of mother-of-pearl, the light, iridescent material often used besides olive wood for Nativity scenes made in the Holy Land, is a delicate crèche contained within a large, iridescent abalone shell. Another unique Holy Land crèche is the very large, multipointed mother-of-pearl Star of Bethlehem that radiates and glimmers; in its center is a similar mother-of-pearl Nativity scene set against a shimmering abalone sky.
It is specific, yet universal, just like this beautiful exhibit.
Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
“Christmas in Asia” runs through Feb. 13, 2011. Call (203) 865-0400 or visit KofCMuseum.org