Annual Exhibit Features Central European Crèches

Christmas Nativities Adorn Knights of Columbus Museum

Courtesy of the Knights of Columbus Museum; Thomas Serafin, photographer
Courtesy of the Knights of Columbus Museum; Thomas Serafin, photographer

HONORING THE HOLY FAMILY. One highlight of this year’s display is a 19th-century pine Madonna and Child. Courtesy of the Knights of Columbus Museum; Thomas Serafin, photographer

 

This year’s annual Knights of Columbus Museum crèche exhibit — “Joy to the World: Crèches of Central Europe” — presents colorful, highly crafted and at times surprisingly different crèches and Nativities from Central Europe — Austria, Czech Republic, Germany, Hungary, Poland, the Slovak Republic and Slovenia.

In many cases, these crèches portray the wondrous birth of our Savior in ways directly connecting his arrival within people’s everyday lives.

Rich tradition blends well in these “local” crèches. The scenes from the Tirol region of Austria are absolutely beautiful and a tribute to the artistry in extraordinary wood carving found in that region. This show offers several moving and handsome examples. At the same time, they often have a folksy innocence.

One is a beautiful, foot-tall Nativity presenting the Holy Family. Carved in 1953 in Tirol, Austria, the two-piece set was originally exchanged as a Christmas present by Arthur and Betty Compton. He was the Nobel Prize winner for physics in 1927.

Another from Austria is a wintry snow scene, complete with an entire flock of sheep and colorful polychrome figures. The Holy Family is placed in a stone stable, and the townspeople coming to see the newborn Christ Child are garbed in local clothing, but the Holy Family and the Kings wear their traditional garments. The Alps rise as a magnificent backdrop for their Creator, who came as a babe in a manger.

Another scene, a diorama, depicts not the manger but, within an Austrian village snow scene, a lovely re-creation of the Chapel of Oberndorf, near Salzburg, called the Stille Nacht Kapelle. In 1937, this white chapel replaced the original church that was badly damaged and where, on Dec. 24, 1818, the carol Silent Night was heard for the first time during midnight Mass.

The most breathtaking piece from Tirol is a Madonna and Child from the 19th century. More than four feet tall, this magnificent image is carved from a single piece of pine tree. Mary’s mantle swirls, enveloping and enwrapping Mother Mary and the Child Jesus in her arms. It’s a one-of-a-kind masterpiece.

 

Germany and Hungary

In contrast to the crèches from Bavaria, some German crèches on display are typical regional “Nativity pyramids” (Krippenpyramide) from the Erzgebirge mountain area. One six-level pyramid revolves, thanks to candles at the bottom, whose rising warm air turns a “propeller” at the top.

Adding to its unusual shape are a number of quite unexpected tiny figures, from toy soldiers to a 20th-century rabbi.

In another Nativity scene, all the figures are dressed in traditional Bavarian costumes, including the Holy Family. From Hungary, one prominent scene has figures painted in white and brown, wearing traditional Hungarian costumes. The Holy Family wear peasant costumes, like the townsfolk do. And another 19th-century example has a crèche within a frame. To the sides of this crèche, there are images of the Sacred Heart and the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Unique materials are another surprise with these crèches. In one instance, from North Rhine-Westphalia, there is a Holy Family carved from large chunks of, of all things, coal.

 

Czech and Slovak Republics

The tradition of crèches in the Czech and Slovak Republics began in Prague in 1560.

The Czech and Slovak crèches have their own particular choice of materials. Nativity scenes use cornhusks and other uncommon items. One detailed scene from the Czech Republic includes several figures and, believe it or not, is crafted from salt paste and placed within two walnut shells.

A most unusual and captivating crèche from Bratislava, Slovakia, by Peter Palka and his family was the winner of the 1994 International Crèche Festival. It then appeared on a 1995 stamp. Simple, yet elegant, this small crèche is made primarily from cornhusks. The modest material recalls the birth of our Savior in humble circumstances. Faces of the figures are round, with little detail. The sheep are covered in delicate tight curls. The clothes of all the figures show fine detailing, too. All are in natural cornhusk colors.

A different cornhusk crèche adds yet another unusual element — all the figures are in black clothes and black veil, decorated with very delicate dots or star patterns.

This section also features a 19th-century example of the Holy Infant of Prague statue, an image of the Christ Child that first appeared in the 16th century.

 

Poland

The best-recognized Polish crèche — known as a szopka — is made of cardboard or plywood and covered with highly colorful foil. In the szopka tradition dating from the 18th and early 19th centuries in Krakow and Warsaw, the manger is enshrined in a splendid building modeled after Gothic churches and medieval castles, with elaborate steeples and domes.

The entire colorful scene glitters and gleams like precious jewels because of the tinfoil covering the structure in bright golds, greens and reds.

Even Poland’s favorite son is featured: John Paul II is seen kneeling in prayer before a szopka, as he contemplates the birth of our Savior and the Holy Family.

Of the szopkas on display, a huge one towers close to five feet high, rising into dazzling Gothic towers — a cathedral and castle all in one, topped with fanciful domes. At the top of the central tower, typical of szopkas, flies the Polish eagle, Poland’s coat of arms. This particular szopka has on its ground level many musicians and dancers, arrayed in colorful, traditional Polish costumes, playing and performing for the Holy Family.

 

Alpine Regions

The stube is the typical “living room” of the houses in the Alpine regions.

A smaller third gallery shows visitors a Nativity scene placed on an overhanging shelf in the living room. In this case, the wide shelf runs about seven feet wide, with a detailed paper scene showing a colorful visage of people, surrounded with forests, some in 3-D, with a hillside and castle.

The Nativity takes its place as the central event of the entire area. The Holy Family is framed by a stone wall and arch with “IHS” for Jesus proclaimed in the arch’s medallion keystone.

Whatever the style, elaborate or simple, these crèches visualize the message of Christian hope.

Joseph Pronechen is a

Register staff writer.