HAVE A QUESTION ABOUT ANTIQUES OR COLLECTIBLES?

Send me an E-mail
(Please, no questions
 about value.)

Instructions for sending photographs of your pieces with your question.

Where did the term "Yankee Doodle" come from?
England
A jack of all trades
New York
                     To see the answer

American Antique Weather Vanes
by A. B. & W. T. Westervelt

The weather vane found a welcome home in the expanding America of the 18th and 19th centuries. It served an important function, but also had humorous and homespun motifs, bold and vigorous design, and spirited air of American individualism and independence.
                                   
More Books

Have Bob speak
 on antiques to your group or organization.

More Information

Can't find what
 you're looking for?

Go to my Sitemap

Share pages of this ezine with your friends using the buttons provided with each article.

Find out what's coming in the
SPRING 2017 EDITION

of the
THE ANTIQUES ALMANAC

COMING IN MAY
 


Have a comment about

The Antiques Almanac
?

Fill in our form.

A Way With the Manger
Creches Become Collectible Folk Art
by Bob Brooke

 


Although many other stories and symbols have been gathered into the rich treasury of Christmas lore, the Nativity remains the central image of the holiday, the reason for its being. For centuries the scene described in the Gospels—the babe in his humble crib, the holy parents beside him, the shepherds and barnyard animals staring amazed while three resplendent kings kneel in adoration—has moved people of all faiths. No wonder it has long been customary to recreate this scene at Christmas time.

Nativity scenes gained popularity in the 17th century, promoted by the Capuchin, Jesuit and Franciscan orders. By the 18th century, three centers of crèche culture had emerged—Naples, Italy, Provence, France, and southern Germany and Austria.

Over the years, the Nativity has been portrayed in many ways. In America, the most popular form is the crèche, a word meaning "manger" or "crib" in French. Carved from wood—although some makers use ceramics, glass, straw, fabric, or even plastic—and painted, a crèche usually depicts the entire Nativity scene, including the manger, a star, angels, shepherds, kings and the Holy Family. Although most are miniature in scale, a few church crèches are almost life-size.


The Origin of the Crèche

Although he didn’t originate the idea, historians credit St. Francis of Assisi with popularizing the Nativity scene. From Italy, the idea spread north across the Alps and finally came to the U.S. with German settlers.

Supposedly, a rich man, Giovanni Vellita, approached St. Francis in December, 1223, asking how he could serve God. St. Francis told him to build a simple, little stable just outside Assisi in the cave at Greccio. This was a time when the average man learned about his faith from the plays he watched, the songs he heard, and the art that lined the walls of the churches.

Much of the celebration of Christmas occurred in churches for a long time. The common worker, much less the very poor, weren’t given much of a place in these celebrations. St. Francis wanted to give the poor people a chance to celebrate. And so the story goes, as midnight approached that Christmas Eve, a great procession wound its way out of Assisi and up the hill to Greccio. Everyone came carrying candles to this new manger they had built for the Holy Child. They celebrated mass that night. Surrounded by an ox and a donkey and by the people of Assisi, all playing the parts of the shepherds and folk of Bethlehem.

Long after St. Francis died, the people of Italy continued to build stables for the Christ Child. Among wealthy Italian families, the simple manger became something incredibly magnificent, the grand Italian Presepio. Naples became the center of the biggest presepi workshops. By the 18th century, these crèches took up whole rooms, indeed, sometimes whole floors of great homes. People traveled from villa to villa to visit and admire these incredible displays, which often took months and a great deal of money to complete.



Sancta Maria Ad Praesepe, later to become the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, contains the first recorded free standing set of creche figures, sculpted from stone by Amolfo Di Cambio in 1282. For some time after, nearly all the creches made were life-sized stone or wood. Those in Tyrolean churches had statues with elaborate Baroque costumes. At the same time, inexpensive Nativity scenes made out of painted paper became available to those who couldn’t afford carved figures.

What Goes Into a Crèche?
Artisans construct crèches or Nativity sets from a variety of materials. The characters can be carved from wood, formed from wax, papier-mache, or clay, or hand painted on cardboard. They stand in or in front of buildings, ranging from Alpine stables and guest houses to romantic Roman ruins. Others have Middle Eastern-style structures with minarets and domes.

Many crèches stand in front of a painted background. Indeed, some artists have achieved fame in painting these scenes. Some show pastoral hillsides and others are a continuation of the buildings in an imagined city of Bethlehem.

The Italian presepio is a large diorama—much like a scale model—of an Italian hill town. The greatest sculptors, architects, jewelers and dressmakers of the 18th century made them. The figures often stood about 20 inches high and were possable. In fact, craftsmen often portrayed an entire village. They included trees, hills, butcher shops, winemakers, carpenters, potters, old people, children and, of course, angels. In some, there were great processions of elaborately costumed dignitaries, camels, elephants, horses and musicians. In addition, there were thieves, drunkards and beggars of the town—the message being that Jesus came to save all men. At the center of it all was the Holy Family and the manger, itself, with the Child Jesus.

Many Italian crèches placed the Holy Family in an old temple or castle, usually represented as a ruin, with broken pillars or archways. This was an historical statement, that the old culture had been destroyed and a new history was beginning. The French generally placed the Holy Family within an entire village, usually clustered on the top of a hill with narrow streets and houses of bricks and mortar, populated by butchers, bakers, millers and even the mayor.

The presepi became the passion of wealthy families. They spent vast sums building and collecting them. To this day, collections are named for the families who acquired and/or commissioned them. At Christmas, the rich and the notable of the time traveled from house to house to admire each other’s great displays. These collections sometimes had hundreds of figures. They might take up whole rooms or floors of a house. One such was that of King Charles III, which had 5,950 figures. Over time, people broke up these great dioramas and sold off the figures. Today, there isn’t one entire original collection that remains intact. This grand Christmas custom died out before the end of the 19th century. Most presepi today have only a few figures in them and are kept in small ornate cases.



Italy’s crèche making hasn’t been limited to the grand presepi. In southern Italy, artisans still make terra cotta santon, which have become the crèches of most southern Italian families. Some displays still get quite large, but the materials and execution are simpler. Figures had flexible wire bodies covered with hemp with faces of painted terra cotta. They made those in the distance smaller. And laid out entire villages in carefully posed and well-staged vignettes. The villagers in them wore costumes not from Bethlehem but from Italy. Scenes contained people, places and activities of everyday life. Santon are also the crèches of most households in southern France. Like the Nativity figures of Italy, the French santon can either be costumed, in real clothes of regional fabrics or santon habille, or be painted and sculpted clay figures or santon d’argile.

From the alpine region of Italy, Bavarian Germany, Austria and Switzerland come crèche figures carved from wood. They’re stained with paint and beautifully carved. German crèches , often called krippen, and can be made of cast metal, cast painted plaster, cardboard with painted or printed artwork, turned wood or clay. Each Christmas, in scenes made up of rocks, branches, evergreens and moss collected in the woods by the family’s children just before the holiday, the krippe is reborn. Christmas morning finds these scenes around the base of the family’s Christmas tree in what’s called a putz or tree yard.

A common figure in Province Nativity scenes is the Ravi, "the exalted one." Portrayed on his knees with arms reaching to heaven, he’s the village fool who is the only one who actually expresses in posture and expression the ecstatic joy he has at the time of the Nativity. Only the fool is able to be truly wise.

Germans and Austrians commonly included the landscape in their crèches. They had mountains, rivers and valleys, and related to that, a city or a castle that was the symbol of heavenly Jerusalem. An apple tree laden with ripe fruit was also a part of the German/Austrian tradition. It's an expression of new life. In the midst of winter darkness, you have an apple tree with ripe apples. A monk, representing St. Jerome, is often included in these crèches.



Crèches Worldwide
Today, craftsmen and artisans around the world construct crèches. From Hungary come wonderful layered felt figures and a craft called straw spinning. From the river Ganges in India, come figures of brightly painted carved wood. From all over Africa, come nativities of straw, carved nuts, wood and painted bark. From Ireland, come crèches carved out of black peat.

Ornate crèches from precious materials weren’t limited to Europe. Flipinos call their crèche a belen. Individual figures are santos. The Christ Child, when He’s shown alone and asleep, is the Ninos Dormidos or sleeping child. Many of these crèche s are quite simple and are of carved wood but like those in Naples some crèche figures are incredibly elaborate. They might be jointed, with glass eyes and hair or be made in part or all out of ivory. Very often, they wear elegant gowns of embroidered silks. They often have multiple changes of wardrobe.

All over the Southwest, Mexico and South America, influences of the Spanish and Portuguese are evident in Nativity sets. Whether it’s the hand carved santos in Niches of punched tin, the processional candelabras with tiny figures in tableaus of the Nativity, crèche figures of bread dough or woven straw, the celebration of Christ’s birth is alive and vibrant here. Among these crèches can be found tiny sorpresas, meaning surprise—a tiny church or dove which, when lifted up, reveals figures less than 1/4-inch high. Best known are the brightly painted clay figures with halos of wire tipped with balls of clay. In addition, there are the brightly painted carved wooden figures from Oaxaca, Mexico.



Collecting Crèches
Called a crèche in France, presipio in Italy, nacimiento in Spain and Mexico and a
krippe in German-speaking countries, the crèches that people collect vary as much as their origins.

For many, collecting crèches is an act of faith. Their crèches provide an expression of their Christianity. Mormons are great collectors of crèches. Creating a Nativity scene in a church has been a long-standing tradition among Catholics And there has been increasing interest in collecting Nativity sets among Protestants.

But mostly, people collect crèches because they’re personal, a reflection of intimate family life. They’re about humanity, not religious dogma or ritual. Moving Nativity sets from the church to the home has made them a popular art form.

The area around Provence, France, is the heart of the Nativity figure, or santon, industry. In the early 19th century, a group of Italian peddlers traveled to Marseille where they sold brightly painted clay figures in the city’s streets and markets. The local artisans were so delighted with the figures that they began to make santons, too, costumed in the French dress of that period. Their work has developed into some of the finest in the world.

Today, vendors sell santon in markets in Marseilles and other French cities, as well as in Rome and in old Naples on the street of Via San Gregorio Armeno near the Piazza San Gaetano And in Austria and Germany, vendors at annual markets called Chriskindlemarkt sell Nativity figures. Collectors go to them looking for one or two more figures or whole sets to add to their crèche collections.

Nativity sets and crèches vary in value, from some worth over $1,100 to others worth just $5. But for many collectors, their value is intrinsic. They’re also easy to find and buy, which makes them fun to collect. At one point, the Ruby Lane site on the Internet had no less then 300 sets for sale.

To read more of my articles, please visit my Web site.

< Back to Collectibles Archives                                           Next Article >

FOLLOW MY WEEKLY BLOG
Antiques Q&A


JOIN MY COLLECTION
Antiques and More on Google+

LIKE MY FACEBOOK PAGE
The Antiques Almanac on Facebook

No antiques or collectibles
are sold on this site.

How to Recognize and Refinish Antiques for Pleasure and Profit

Book: How to Recognizing and Refinishing Antiques for Pleasure and Profit
Have you ever bought an antique or collectible that was less than perfect and needed some TLC? Bob's new book offers tips and step-by- step instructions for simple maintenance and restoration of common antiques.

Read an Excerpt

Provided by: News-Antique.com