‘Buon Natale’: Come to the Christmas Crib

Knights of Columbus Showcase Crèches of Italy

Crèche exhibits have become a Christmas tradition at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn.

This year, the museum (KofCMuseum.org) marks the 10th anniversary of exhibiting these Nativity displays.

The current theme is “Buon Natale: Crèches of Italy.” (The exhibit runs through Feb. 1. A “Christmastime Family Day” is scheduled for Dec. 28, and a wood-carving demonstration by lending artist Antonio Caruso is planned for Jan. 10. )

There is even a bit of a Pope Francis connection — and a Pope Benedict XVI one, too.

The figures that Antonio Cantone designed and crafted in 2013 for the crèche that Francis picked for St. Peter’s Square last year inspired the figures Cantone made for one of the Nativity scenes in the current show.

Also on display is the Knights of Columbus Museum’s own Baroque Mexican crèche, with figures built especially for the museum. It is similar to the one that leading Mexican sculptor Augustin Parra made for Pope Benedict XVI.

Hand-carved of cedar in the traditional 17th-century way, this quite large, elaborately detailed and colorful Nativity reflects the qualities of the Renaissance masters.

Of the 24 crèches in this exhibit, eight that exclusively grace two of the three galleries were designed and arranged especially for this exhibit by Bottega D’Arte Presepiale Cantone & Costabile. Located in Naples, the workshop run by Cantone and his wife, Maria Costabile, specializes in d’arte presepiale — the art of the Christmas crib — and, specifically, traditional Neapolitan crèches.


Roman Touches

The crèches seem so precisely done by 18th-century methods that viewers can easily think they are seeing perfectly preserved examples from the past.

In the 18th century, placing the Holy Family (whose feast day is Dec. 28) and Nativity among Roman ruins became popular. In this exhibit, the Baby Jesus is featured with a partial Corinthian capital at his feet, while behind Mary and Joseph there stands a wall of bricks typical of the time.

Rock settings were another popular location. One example of this type shows the innocence and humility of the Infant Jesus in his facial expressions and those of Mary and Joseph.


Adoring Christ

The adoration of Christ by the Magi was another favorite theme. One harks to 17th-century Naples and, like others of the time, strongly reminds viewers of Neapolitan paintings from that era. The Three Kings wear resplendent garments and adore the sleeping Babe in the manger.

Worship of the Christ Child is prominent. In one example, a rather simple Roman ruin allows the focus to be on worship of the newborn King and Savior. The gold podium under the Holy Family suggests his kingship. It is the kind of church crèche where people could approach, reverence the Infant and kiss his feet.

There are also examples of crèches in a pastoral setting and among Baroque ruins. Another with sheep in the landscape of Italy’s Campania region recalls Jesus both as the Lamb of God and as the Good Shepherd who comes to save the lost sheep.

Whatever the location, the figures are exquisitely detailed. The authentic clothing is made from cotton, linen, silks and brocades.

A radiance highlights the Holy Family, even in the way the soft, pastel-like or muted colors are used only for them and for the angels. Mary’s mantle is often of blue/green, symbolic of heaven, while her pink/peach dress is symbolic of earth. Cantone’s explanation of the symbolism reflects the Church’s teaching that when Mary gave birth to the living God she automatically became Queen of Heaven and Earth.


Neapolitan History

The creation of Neapolitan crèches began in the 16th century. By the 17th century, when crèches moved out of churches and were embraced by laypeople, they became more and more elaborate; they were commissioned by the wealthier people in society.

In Cantone’s examples, made in the traditional manner, the crèches give visitors a historical view of what Naples looked like in the past. They act like “photographs” of the times.

One incredible diorama takes up a whole gallery itself. Measuring 120 square feet, it presents a Neapolitan village market and inn scene that can be viewed from all four sides. Huge photos decorate the walls of the exhibit, showing details in the diorama.

This sprawling 18th-century Neapolitan crèche is populated with more than 75 human figures, not counting the Holy Family and angels.

The Holy Family is surrounded by angels and worshippers that include the Magi, while musicians serenade them. Down in the streets, some figures are dancing, eating outdoors at the inn and ignoring the main spiritual meaning as they go about their daily business of selling and shopping at the outdoor fish, fruit and vegetable markets. Loads of wax fruits and vegetables add a sense of realism. People talk, tend sheep and sell rolls off a baker’s cart.

Italian or Italian-inspired crèches, most quite small in size, populate the third gallery. Among the highlights are a ceramic Nativity by Eugenio Pattarino, an acclaimed ceramicist in the 20th century; a 2013 interpretation by two American artists who created it after seeing a Metropolitan Museum of Art display of Neapolitan figures; two simple, humble Nativities done in molded burlap by a Carmelite nun; and a finely detailed silver-played Triptych crèche.

One example from the House of Fontanini called All Roads Lead to the Manger is smaller, has resin figures, including a camel, and houses and a tent indicate a Middle-East setting. Everyone has to climb the hill to get to the manger and adore the newborn Prince of Peace.

In a Sicilian-style crèche, the Infant Jesus gazes up to heaven, looking in wonder at the stars he has made and maybe at the choirs of angels serenading him on that holy night.

Another quite attractive crèche called Then and Now brings together two scenes — the crèche and a Corpus Christi procession, with a bishop and Swiss Guards, from the 19th-20th century. Without Jesus being born, there would be no Corpus Christi (Body of Christ) procession, after all.

The Nativity scene is set in Italy, where, on a small hill above, musicians serenade the Holy Family, and dancers express their joy at the sight. Only one man kneels in adoration before the Christ Child. Joseph stands behind Mary, with his hand on her shoulder. She turns her head so that both look at each other as the Infant on her lap reaches out toward an angel kneeling in front of him.

The Corpus Christi procession wends its way around the hill and toward the Babe in the manger.

In a smaller crèche, titled If Hands Could Talk, the Holy Family’s hands are spread out, as if the Infant says, “Behold, I am here”; and Mary says, “Behold, the newborn Son of God: Come to him”; and Joseph says, “Behold, the Child and his mother, Mary; approach with joy.”

Joseph Pronechen is the Register’s staff writer.