‘O Come, Let Us Adore Him’: Knights of Columbus’ Christmas Nativity Exhibit 2021
An array of crèches are on display from around the world.
With Christmas around the corner, the Blessed Michael McGivney Pilgrimage Center in New Haven, Connecticut, has a welcome gift: the revival of its traditional Christmas crèche exhibit. This current show, the 16th to be sponsored by the Knights, is titled “The Nativity Story: Art of the Crèche.”
The very first show proved so popular that the Knights ran with a different theme for each successive show until the pandemic caused the center, the former Knights of Columbus Museum, to cancel the 2020 show. This new exhibit comes directly from the Knights’ own collection, which has even been expanded to include Nativity scenes gifted from the extensive collection of Father Timothy Goldrick, retired priest in the Diocese of Fall River, Massachusetts, and avid expert crèche collector.
Crèches and nativities range in all sizes, from a small one that can be balanced on one hand to an enormous Neapolitan scene filling an entire gallery. The displays range from folk to fine art, from traditional to nonconventional. These Nativity scenes and related art come from around the globe and span the centuries. There is everything from a Neapolitan crèche set in the 17th century to a Holy Family wearing Maasai garments native to Kenya and Tanzania.
Among the many unique crèches is the Nativity from Portugal’s Azores. This interpretation of the crèche includes a central wicker basket, the type woven in the Azores, with an opening on its side to serve as the stable. Within is a depiction of the Holy Family, while a raft of other figures dressed in traditional Portuguese costume fill the colorful scene. The characters include a six-piece band, offering a musical welcome to the Baby Jesus, the Three Kings, an angel, donkey, ox — and rooster.
A wooden Nativity from Portugal also includes the rooster crowing from the stable’s roof. A legend in that country credits this bird as the first creature to announce Christ’s birth to the world. A rooster also appears with a duck in one of the Russian nativities.
Native Nativity Scenes
One of the show’s marvels is the way different cultures and countries have made the Nativity their own. From the Philippines there is an almost-silhouette-like Holy Family, fashioned with lovely native iridescent multicolor seashells and sparkling metal wire that outlines figures and forms decorative filigrees for clothing. A small, colorful scene of Russian origin includes red, green and blue wood figures; the adornment includes the Holy Family with an evergreen tree behind Baby Jesus and two onion-dome towers. This pair of towers, as seen on Russia’s historic churches and other buildings, stands on either side like two candles.
Animals also make an appearance at one of the crèches from Africa. A scene from Kenya includes an elephant and hippo kneeling before the manger while a giraffe and second elephant also look upon the Holy Family. The carved figures are of simple lines except for the faces, which are detailed.
Two unusual scenes come from Israel. Both utilize shiny pieces of olivewood tree trunk, perfectly hollowed out. Inside rests a rendition of the Holy Family appearing in simple olivewood figures. One of these Nativity scenes adds angels, a shepherd and sheep.
Traversing three large galleries, the beautiful presentation wends its way through sections that have various emphases, as their titles indicate — the Nativity, Mary Mother of God, St. Joseph, Angels, Shepherds, and more. The titles appear as new chapters in an “open book” whose pages are decorated in a way reminiscent of Renaissance or Middle Ages illumination.
These “pages” stretch from floor to ceiling. As the show progresses, visitors turning the corners “open” a new “page.”
Around one corner, from Italy, there is a Neapolitan-style terracotta Holy Family scene comprised of cotton, fabric, silver and more. Five elaborately clothed angels surround the Holy Family like a beautiful heavenly wreath.
Around another corner, a 4-foot-tall Polish szopka that dates to the 1930-40s is modeled after Poland’s castles and Gothic cathedrals.
It has much ornamentation, decorating several floors and tall towers. On the first level, dancers are shown wearing traditional Polish costumes to celebrate the birth of the Lord as the Nativity scene appears above them on the second level. The shiny metallic foil covering the entire szopka adds glistening elements.
Paintings have a place in this show, too.
A Russian icon dating to around 1700 is called Our Lady of the Sign. A circa-18th-century Peruvian painting pictures the Holy Family with saints and the Holy Trinity.
Paintings created for covers that graced December issues of Columbia, the Knights of Columbus magazine, also find their place in the show. A captivating watercolor called Silent Night appeared on the 1978 and 1984 Christmas issue covers. A distant stable in the center, brightly highlighted by the light from a single star, acts like a spiritual magnet drawing viewers’ eyes. Viewers “stand” in the woods in the foreground, where a single lamb is shown looking toward the stable in this peaceful picture.
Another painting, for Columbia’s 1972 issue, presents a serene scene depicting Mary as she kneels and gazes lovingly at the Infant Jesus lying in a raised manger, while St. Joseph is shown holding a lantern with one hand and placing his other hand on his heart in holy awe.
That same reverence marks even the simpler displays, such as the crèche in Hopi Indian style. Made of clay and set in a pueblo in Arizona, the Nativity is depicted taking place in a ceremonial room traditional with the Hopi.
Elsewhere, a large German crèche from the late 1960s has a distinctive Hummel style.
Its many colorful porcelain figures are larger than usual and appear around an Old World stable. On another level, in a crèche from Hungary, the colorful clay figures shine like porcelain or ceramic and appear in the traditional garments of Hungarian peasants.
For a bit of whimsy, the Three Kings, more than 2 feet tall, appear as Czech marionettes. The figures wear colorful traditional costumes of the Czech Republic and harken back to the Middle Ages, when such figures were used for telling biblical stories.
One gallery alone is occupied by an elaborate Neapolitan crèche, boasting dozens of figures. It was made in 2014 specifically for the Knights and that year’s show in the museum by a company in Naples using authentic 18th-century techniques and costumes. Viewers can circle this expansive scene from every side and study the elaborate details and facial expressions. The authentic clothing is made from cotton, linen, silks and brocades. This rendition of the Holy Family includes soft, pastel-like or muted colors — likewise for the angels. The included scores of townspeople range from the merchants who are only interested in selling their vegetables, fish and assorted wares to those who truly “see” and want to approach the newborn Christ Child.
An added touch for this show: The walls have been turned into a picture-perfect background of a peaceful blue night sky dotted with lots of little stars. In fact, the whole show has an air of peace and tranquility about it, encouraging visitors to stop and think about not only the various ways different cultures and places have interpreted the Nativity with their crèches or scenes, but to prayerfully reflect on that first Christmas — and reawaken the joy again this year.
The show brings to mind what Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI said, in part, when reflecting on crèches, in 2012, “The crib is a school of life where we can learn the secret of true joy.”
This show continues through Feb. 6, 2022. For days and details, visit the website: MichaelMcGivneyCenter.org.