NEW HAVEN, Conn. — No display like a Nativity scene better captures the meaning of Christmas.

Elaborate or simple, in churches, homes or public places, crèches visualize the universal message of our Savior’s birth.

While many public municipal sites have stopped displaying them, the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn., is exhibiting many crèches in its annual Nativity show. The theme this year is “A Latino Christmas.”

What the Nativity means universally and its relationship to art itself are two main lessons of the exhibit. The Hispanic crèche show also has connections to the Knights’ patron, Christopher Columbus.

Columbus brought Christianity to the New World, said the museum’s director, Larry Sowinski. Less than 40 years later, Our Lady of Guadalupe appeared. Spanish missionaries and settlers introduced the crèche custom, which Spain received from Italy, where St. Francis of Assisi popularized it before the “modern” crèche appeared in 16th-century Naples.

Peoples in the Americas eventually adapted the crèche from Baroque Spanish and Portuguese art. The Knights of Columbus show brings to light the ways their crèches developed, with examples from 16 Latin countries, four southwestern U.S. states that were part of New Spain and later Mexico until 1848, and Puerto Rico.

The mix of fine art and especially folk art captures devotion and joy.

“Folk art percolates from the faith of the people in different cultures,” said Father Tim Goldrick, pastor of Saint Nicholas of Myra Church in North Dighton, Mass.

Several crèches from his large collection are among those on display. He sees them as more than folk art. “It shows these various cultures and tribes and peoples have claimed the incarnation of Christ for their own,” he said, “using their own material, a pueblo or whatever. It belongs to them.”

Materials in the more recent Latin crèches (nacimientos) include clay unpainted or painted in bright colors, delicate wax, papier-mâché, metals, beads, shells, carved wood, cloth ribbon, fabric, terra cotta, seashells, cow horn and hinged gourds opening to reveal the Nativity.

The interpretations are just as varied. From Texas the Nativity is set by the Alamo, with Mary reclining next to newborn Jesus, as she does in some other nacimientos. From Colorado, the Wise Men are Indian chiefs bringing peace, warmth and food as gifts. Father Goldrick explains gold, myrrh and frankincense don’t mean anything to that culture, but the peace pipe, buffalo robe and maize are critical items, especially in the Pueblo tradition.

Colors and Interpretations

At the same time, some Hispanic crèches, like those from Mexico, find carryovers from the exotic elements learned from Baroque Neapolitan styles, with the kings arriving on a camel, horse and elephant.

One huge Mexican reproduction with three-foot figures, a replica of a Baroque set made for the Vatican, is fine art with exceptionally intricate costuming, but most of the Mexican and New Mexican crèches glow with joyful, simple characteristics of the culture. A number are brightly painted with townspeople turned out in their finest native dress and colorful mariachi bands serenading the Holy Family and celebrating the birth of the Infant.

In contrast, the Mexican Tonala-style crèches are monochromatic blue or white and capture innocent, childlike faces on all the participants, from Mary and Joseph to a range of townspeople.

There are also Rococo-like styles; these scenes are elaborate, with fruits, leaves and birds all intertwined in a complex symphony of figures. Same for the colorful retablos overflowing with village scenes both Christian and non-Christian around the Nativity. One even presents Our Lady of Guadalupe with her apparitions replicated in several scenes.

Father Goldrick describes the retablo as a portable shrine, easily carried on the back of a mule to a village by an evangelist, or for a home scene; they are very brightly colored to catch the eye, with several scenes in tiers around the Nativity.

The retablos from Peru are exceptionally elaborate. Doors open upon tiers crowded with villagers, animals, local flora — all in bold color.

Crèches have not only people and places familiar to each country or state — like Apaches, Andes Peruvians, the New Mexican Church of San Xavier del Bac, an adobe hut — sometimes they include animals native to the country that pay homage to the Christ Child, too.

Then there are unusual interpretations. From Puerto Rico, God the Father holds a Nativity set, showing he has a hand in this, says Father Goldrick. From Venezuela, a triptych presents the Christ Child’s manger as a chalice; Mary and Joseph adore from the side panels.


The Art of the Crèche

Families have handed down crèche art for generations — and along with that, “family memories of the faith,” said Father Goldrick.

Yet carrying on the making and displaying of crèches is more than local — it’s universal. Father Goldrick said the Council of Trent encouraged crèches to be set up in churches and homes as acts of piety and catechetical tools.

“Folk art does this on the home level,” he said. “It percolates from the heart.” These artists use their creativity; they see the Nativity accounts through new eyes.

Pope Benedict XVI had something to say about art recently that can be applied to Nativity scenes, whether they are crafted by Christians in the home or by serious artists. “Christianity from its earliest days has recognized the value of the arts and has made wise use of their varied language to express her unvarying message of salvation,” he said during a Nov. 21 address to artists gathered in the Sistine Chapel. “The great biblical narratives, themes, images and parables have inspired innumerable masterpieces … just as they have spoken to the hearts of believers in every generation through the works of craftsmanship and folk art that are no less eloquent and evocative.”

Sculptor Thomas Marsh, whose works grace churches and shrines, said, “There’s a common ground between the simplest effort at representing the Nativity and the complex representation on a fine-art level that transcends questions of skill.”

Some incredible crèches like those at the Vatican are fine art, “yet the most humble folk art can reach us in much the same way,” said Marsh. “The expression in these crèches brings to life for us the truth of the Nativity, helping it to live before our eyes.”

“Crèches are tangible, nonverbal teaching tools,” he said. They can reach the simplest level of understanding.” He finds an interactive character to crèches, especially the hands-on simple ones; children can touch, move and play with the figures.

“Their interactive character leaves a priceless imprint for children’s whole lives,” he said. “For childhood experience they are a profound and deep teaching tool.” He knows from personal experience: There are several crèches in the Marsh family.

Whether fine art, folk art, museum or home, Marsh concludes, “Crèches are treasures as teaching tools in general. They’re immersed in culture, and they’re beyond culture.”

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.


More Information
“A Latino Christmas” ends Jan. 31, 2010. Visit KofC.org/museum for more information.