There is something particularly wonderful about gazing on the Nativity as presented in the Art Institute’s Neapolitan Crèche. Housed in a small, darkened gallery on the museum’s second floor, the crèche is displayed in a way that heightens its inherent magic and mystery. The effect owes something to the dramatic glass case that contains the nativity scene and the splendid cornice above it: their beaming draws viewers near to inspect the fantastic spectacle framed within their proscenium. Before this gigantic dollhouse of a crèche, adults stand and stare as if they were kids.
The urge to represent Jesus’s birth in a ‘living way,’ whether through tableaux vivants, Christmas pageants, or three-dimensional crèches has spanned more than a millennium. While two-dimensional depictions of the nativity date from within several centuries of Jesus’s death, the history of the crèche is associated with the work of Saint Francis of Assisi. Legend has it that, around 1223, he originated the custom of re-enacting the story of Jesus’s birth using human actors along with live oxen and ass. This tradition of pageantry grew and became intertwined with the custom of creating of lasting sculptural representations of the Holy Family’s arrival in Bethlehem and the unlikely birth of Jesus in a stable, an event whose significance was apprehended, according to Gospel, only by angels, shepherds, and three wise men.
By the 18th century, when most of the Art Institute’s crèche was made, the artists of Naples had pushed the art form of crèche-making to unprecedented heights. Patrons commissioned the artists to make crèches for palaces and cathedrals, encouraging the growth of a genre that became ever more elaborate and expansive. The Art Institute’s crèche includes some 250 figures—an amazing array of mortal and heavenly beings, all shaped, painted, and outfitted in lifelike detail.
Significantly, the crèche integrates the transformative moment of Jesus’s birth with the ongoing drama of human society. Naples was cosmopolitan, and the crèche includes people of many sorts and nationalities. As a host of angels and cherubs flutters down out of a hand-painted sky, and as Mary and Joseph beam on their newborn son, the surrounding human family parties on. The crèche’s conflation of past and present, its melding of spiritual joy with the worldly, is very much in keeping with the transcendent possibilities told of in Christmas’s original, earthy story.
The crèche is a relatively new acquisition of the Art Institute.
It can be seen in Gallery 209 through January 8, 2017.
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