The Art of Christmas

The current show at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn. — “Nativities of Europe: Fine Art to Folk Art” — opens a new perspective on how other countries portray the birth of Our Savior.

The current show at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven, Conn. — “Nativities of Europe: Fine Art to Folk Art” — opens a new perspective on how other countries portray the birth of Our Savior and, in most cases, directly connect Jesus’ arrival to their own everyday lives.

With more than 70 crèches from 25 countries, from smaller tabletop versions to much larger types, the show’s centerpiece is a 24-foot Neapolitan crèche from Italy.

Although it was made in the 21st century, it follows the tradition of elaborate Neapolitan crèches called presepio (from the Latin praesepe, meaning “stable”) that date to the 1500s. St. Francis of Assisi created the first Nativity scene in 1223 (see page 7). Nativity scenes first appeared in churches, but by 1567, the Duchess of Amalfi set up the first known presepio in a home, with 167 figures. By the 18th century, these scenes were increasingly detailed.

The museum’s version follows this tradition of grand size and highly detailed 16th-century village scene. Terra cotta, cloth, cork and plaster bring the scene to life and give each of the many characters a distinct personality.

On a hillside at the edge of town, a wide-open cave enfolds the manger scene, where local baskets filled with fruit are placed before the Infant Jesus. After paying our respects to the Holy Family along with adoring townspeople, shepherds and angels surrounding the manger, we spot something else to think about. Some others in the town are unaware of the Divine Birth, or seem indifferent as they go about their daily routines.

But there’s a different story in the 23-foot French santon (from the Provençal santoun, or “little saint”), a tradition that dates to homes in the early 1700s.

This exhibit’s 1985 diorama puts the Nativity in Provence. All the villagers, and even folks coming from the fields, act as one as they all stream toward the manger. All come with arms open, ready to embrace the Christ Child. It’s as if they ask us to join them, too.

The villagers also stream toward Jesus in the smaller tabletop santon from Alsace. This one has its own character and details. The Holy Family wears peasant costumes like the townsfolk. Joseph has his arm around Mary’s shoulder as both contemplate Baby Jesus. In the foreground, a Jewish scribe records the scene. From the church behind the Holy Family, the village radiates around in a circle so that every direction and path leads to the Infant Jesus.

Recalling the Old Testament, a rabbi blows a ram’s horn in the foreground of a 2005 betlem (crèche) from the Czech Republic.

This monochrome Nativity carved of light-toned wood has Joseph holding up Jesus for everyone to see. Angels with bells appear overhead, and they’re arranged like swinging bells themselves, ringing out the glad tidings. Off to one side, a single Roman centurion looks on as Jesus is born.

Adding symbols and local practices is also part of these crèches.

Two Styles

One smaller presepio from 2000 includes two Swiss Guards and a procession of priests and altar boys with incense, all led by a crucifix-bearer heading to the manger, with townspeople in native costume singing and dancing.

Dressing the people in costumes or clothing native to the country or area isn’t at all unusual in crèches from several countries. It brings a feeling of immediacy and connects the birth of Jesus to their everyday lives.

So does setting them locally, like the Swiss Alpine village, complete with chalets, a parade of sheep and the crèche set atop Alpine rocks.

We can also imagine Pope John Paul II’s delight as we contemplate several different Polish crèches, called szopka, surely familiar to him.

There are two basic styles here. Some are patterned after the szopka tradition dating back to the 18th and early 19th centuries in Krakow and Warsaw.

In these, the manger is enshrined in elaborate buildings modeled after real castles and churches with elaborate steeples and domes. The colorful scenes glitter like precious jewels because of the predominance of tinfoil material in bright gold, green and red.

The other crèches, from the 1990s, a foot or more tall, are made of polychrome wood that has been carved into high bas reliefs. These draw us into the Nativity, as all of the figures with eastern European features are bonded together, and several look out at us wide-eyed, as if to say, “Open your eyes to the birth of Our Savior.” There’s a folksy innocence about them.

Among the other crèches is the tabletop Lithuanian one, carved from a solid limb of wood, a glazed ceramic creation from Holland with blue and gray figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph, all before a Delft-like tile with a winter windmill scene as the background, and the Portuguese triple-tiered display with Jesus in a bassinet and birds serenading him.

Local Flavor

Thankfully, there are only two or three of the stark, featureless Nativities of modern design that have no warmth or welcome about them.

To lend a local flavor to the international exhibit, the museum commissioned three crèches to be set locally in the tradition of this show’s European folk art.

The all-girls Sacred Heart Academy in Hamden, Conn., set the Nativity in the present with the town’s landmarks and included Archbishop Henry Mansell of the Archdiocese of Hartford and school founder in the display, while the all-boys Xavier High School set its Nativity in 1930 Middletown, Conn., at an Italian immigrant Christmas festival.

The third takes place at St. Mary’s Church in New Haven in 1882, the setting and year when the Knights of Columbus was founded by Father Michael McGivney.

Outside of the huge church, more than 6 feet tall, the scene unfolds as a young Father McGivney looks on in awe and adoration. Many of the figures are made of polychrome and gold wash from the renowned ceramicist professor Eugenio Pattarino of Florence (1885-1971).

This exhibit teaches us another important lesson. Whether we call the crèche a presepio, szopka or betlem, or whatever way we make one, it adds to the same message: The wondrous event is ever old, ever new, and recalled everywhere.

Staff writer Joseph Pronechen

writes from Trumbull, Connecticut.