Contemplating the Crèche: Knights of Columbus Center Celebrates 800th Anniversary of St. Francis’ Creation in Annual Exhibit
Highlights of the 2023 Show
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi decided to celebrate the birth of Jesus in a new way by recreating the Nativity in the Italian town of Greccio. According to his biographer, Thomas de Celano, Francis assembled what is considered the first crèche, saying, “Out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem.”
To mark this major octocentennial anniversary, the Knights of Columbus is presenting its annual crèche show in the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center, formerly their museum, as a twofold exhibit in its four galleries: “Christmas in the Americas” and “Celebrating 800 Years of the Crèche.” All of the crèches, from the simplest to the most elaborate, are from the Knights’ own collection, many of them the gift of crèche collector and expert Father Timothy Goldrick. These recreations evoke broad smiles and wonderment at their inventiveness or their richness in remembering that first Nativity.
In the first part, the crèches come from all over North and South America, from Canada down to Argentina and Chile. In the second part, there are crèches on display from around the world, including Poland, Senegal and Laos.
Most share two characteristics in their artistry. First, many use materials native to their place or region, like the onyx in Mexico, koa wood from Hawaii, gourd fruit of the Calabash tree from South America, or recycled glass from old windows and bottles. The list is ingenious, inventive and very long.
Second, many find the Holy Family, shepherds and Three Kings appearing in the native dress of the places where the crèches were made.
Many are distinct. One of the first crèches that visitors see is fashioned in two parts and called “St. Francis Nativity With the Shepherds’ Stable.” The award-winning Navidad Nativities in Pennsylvania made it this year in honor of the very first Nativity scene 800 years ago. Both include a grotto reflecting the Greccio locale in Umbria, and one includes a piece of rock that comes from Greccio. Everything is meticulously carved from wood and hand-painted in much detail, as are all of the Nativity figures. Joining them is a figure of St. Francis that appears to be overlooking this Nativity scene.
One of the smallest crèches, from Mexico, is carved of onyx that resembles a light green alabaster. No more than 3 inches high, the simple scene includes a depiction of the Holy Family in a modest stable with sheep nearby. Another rendition from Mexico is made of tin. The figures are in minor relief, and colorful, as they form a joyous group decked out in vibrant and sparkling greens and reds.
Another from the same country is made entirely of seashells, including the characters’ faces.
From Canada is a Native crèche from the Mohawk Nation. Made of red clay and polychromed, the figures represent artist Keena’s Mohawk heritage. The figures bear Mohawk features and appear in Indigenous dress, including the Three Kings. The animals — a buffalo, a bear, and what appears to be a little wolf — are native to their locale too. (A note of interest: One of Keena’s crèches appeared on a Canadian stamp.)
A crèche from the Cochiti Pueblo in the Southwestern United States also brings Native American interpretation to a Nativity scene.
Many of the backstories of these crèches and their artists and artisans are fascinating. For one, there is a large crèche made entirely of handcrafted pewter from Danforth Pewter in Middlebury, Vermont. The company was founded in Connecticut in 1755, closed in 1873, and then restarted in 1975 in Vermont by the founder’s great-great-great-great-great grandson Fred Danforth and his wife.
Then there is a modest Holy Family from Pennsylvania that almost reminds one of the simple country life there in earlier days. Joyce Byers, who designed it, also designed all the popular Byers’ Choice “Carolers” that began as a project for her family.
From Port-au-Prince, Haiti, a simple, colorful semicircular crèche of hammered steel finds the figures of the shepherds and the Three Kings bringing gifts, including a pineapple, to the Baby Jesus in the manger.
Another metal crèche stretches almost two feet wide and includes many detailed figures in silhouette. This scene from Pennsylvania, done entirely in aluminum, was made at America’s oldest (100 years old) and largest aluminum and metal forge. The artisans still use the original eight-step artistic process to create beautifully engraved heirloom pieces in aluminum, bronze, sterling silver and other metals.
Another crèche from an American company will bring back memories for many viewers. It is a large traditional Nativity set from the Atlantic Mold Co., which has since closed. This company was the first to produce the ever-popular ceramic Christmas tree with lights, and it also produced molds for paint-your-own ceramic crèche figures. This example, with well over a dozen figures, is colorful, yet its muted shades give an appearance of being almost antique.
South and Central America are well represented, too. Several examples find the Holy Family and all the accompanying figures appearing in Indigenous costume or dress. For example, the figures in a crèche from Peru are clothed in the traditional attire of the Andean highland. The shepherds wear chullo hats. Another from Argentina, done in clay and muted colors, is rustic, complete with figures dressed in the traditional garb of the regional ethnic groups. Another simple Holy Family from Peru finds the figures of St. Joseph and Mary in traditional colorful clothing decorated with geometric patterns still worn in this South American country. And in another Canadian crèche, St. Joseph is depicted wearing high boots and a fur hat.
Elsewhere, the figures in the crèche from Upper Egypt also don traditional clothing. (Christians make up approximately 10-14% of Egypt’s population.) Another Nativity from Senegal shows the figurines, also dressed in colorful native costume, bringing gifts.
Other highlights: Some faces are highly detailed and expressive, while others are more basic. One example from Brazil has faces with just dots for eyes and a suggestion of a nose and lips.
In a crèche from Guatemala, the Magi offer local gifts to the Christ Child: pineapple, watermelon and a chicken. From Venezuela, the Magi are shown carrying gifts in pots and depicted carrying similar pots on their heads. Small details reflect the culture and people here and elsewhere, such as the inclusion of St. André Bessette and explorer Samuel de Champlain in a large Canadian crèche.
Meanwhile, the few Peruvian retablos feature three-dimensional figures placed within portable boxes that have several interior layers, like floors in a house, filled with carved figures. One retablo is small, another almost the size of a medium suitcase. Dozens upon dozens of figures in various sizes — all in Peruvian costumes of various sorts — fill the boxes. The top floor, also loaded with figures, beautifully highlights the Holy Family; in the center is the depiction of the Baby Jesus holding tiny arms up toward a star.
And, as every year, the Knights’ substantial Neapolitan crèche of close to 200 figures resembles an 18th-century village in Naples, Italy. This Nativity scene depicts many villagers, just as in another smaller but similarly elaborate Neapolitan crèche that includes several angels and another with ancient Italian columns.
A much different setting comes from the Holy Land, with a crèche exquisitely carved from olive wood, most appropriate at this time since olive branches are often considered symbols for world peace. Bethlehem is the main center for olive-wood carvings by Palestinian Christians, as has been the custom for centuries, especially after Italian and Franciscan artisans in the 16th and 17th centuries taught such carving there. In this crèche, the stable for the Holy Family is a hollowed-out olive branch, while images of shepherds and their sheep look upon the depiction of the Christ Child. The natural grains and varied tones of the wood add to the Bethlehem connection.
Throughout the galleries there are plaques along the walls quoting from St. Francis biographer Thomas de Celano as well as St. Bonaventure, who also wrote a biography of St. Francis.
Beleaguered Ukraine is not forgotten in this show, which includes one crèche, carved of light-colored linden wood by Volodymyr Kravchenko, who lives and works in the Lviv region. He and his family have been making Christian-themed woodcarvings for more than two decades. Speaking a year ago and explained in the exhibit notes, he captured an important part of this show: “My favorite work is the Nativity scene — 11 figures in which not only is work invested but also a particle of the soul is invested. … It is important that the carving gives joy, gives warmth. This is exactly what I hope our Nativity scene is like.”
For more information, visit MichaelMcGivneyCenter.org