Cast of thousands

Removing the mold from a terra cotta Santon.
This is the latest my crèche set has ever come out of hiding for Christmas, but at last the multitudes grace my mantelpiece. The festivities can commence. Last December, I wrote about the history of nativities, here.
I’m fascinated by crèche sets, and every year I entertain the idea of making a set of nativity figures myself. There are just a few techniques used to make them, and the biggest challenge is to choose one and learn it.
Italians, in particular Neapolitans, are the masters of terra cotta and carved nativity sets. This is from the Vatican in 2012. 
We are all familiar with Hummel figurines, which were introduced in 1935 as part of the porcelain line of W. Goebel Porzellanfabrik, which is in turn part of an even greater Bavarian tradition of painted porcelain. In fact, if you’re an American of German ancestry, you can hardly avoid the stuff, since it was collected avidly by expats living here.
This animated Italian molded polychrome horse would set you back $240 plus shipping and handling, if you could get it. It’s sold out.
Among the many Bavarian export porcelains were molded ceramic nativity sets. The Goebel nativity sets are highly collectible today, but I’ve never come across a set of molds.

If you think vintage Goebel nativity sets are cute, be prepared to dig deep in your pocket; they can easily set you back a grand or more.
If you own a plastic nativity set, it’s likely to have been made for the American market by Fontanini, which successfully caught and rode the 20th century American trend of voracious collecting. There are hundreds of different figurines available, every fanciful character with its own fanciful backstory.
That there was no reason for a centurion or a miller or a goose girl to be at the stable on the night of Christ’s birth has never stopped Fontanini from expanding its cast of thousands. At $20 a figure, it pays to spread the Good News.
Emanuele Fontanini founded the firm in 1908 as a craft workshop in Bagni di Lucca, making papier mache figurines. In the 1960s, his descendent, Mario, figured out how to translate the traditional figurines into injection-molded plastic, and an empire was born.  Alas, injection-molded plastic is beyond my capabilities.
The last time I made a creche figure was in the late Sixties, in Sunday School. I’m thinking of marketing that figurine in the red gown as Leah the Leper. My painting skills have improved since then, I think.
Naples is the place to go for papier mache, carved, or clothed terra-cotta polychrome nativity sets. This being a living, changing art form, it should come as no surprise that one can now buy them animated and lighted. No joy looking for the molds here, either; the best I could find were molds for chocolate nativity sets.

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!

America’s favorite folk art form

Nativity crèche at St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church in Rochester, NY. This follows the German custom of not placing the Christ Child in place until Christmas. I confess to secretly plotting for years with my friend Judie to steal this and resurrect it on our Town Triangle on a Friday night, in the belief that nobody could call to complain until after sundown on Saturday. But my respect for the crèche’s creator, Al Bullwinkle, always stays my hand.
Every November the United States schedules a ruckus over removing religious symbols from our public spaces. Despite that, the Nativity crèche remains our favorite folk art form, at least now that those plywood cutouts of gardener’s butts are passé.
St. Francis instituting the crèche at Greccio, painted by Giotto sometime around 1300.
St. Francis of Assisi is generally credited with creating the first Nativity scene. It was 1223, and he was attempting to center Christmas on the worship of Christ rather than on materialism and gift giving. It was a Living Nativity, and he staged it in a cave. Not only did he not make much headway against crass commercialism, the next year the Church recorded the first fight over who got to play the Blessed Virgin Mary.
The Metropolitan Museum has a magnificent 18th century Neapolitan crèche set, which changes every year as they add new pieces.
The first sculpted Italian terra cotta Nativity sets were created shortly after that, probably because they couldn’t talk back. As crèches were scaled down to fit in homes, their construction shifted to include wood, wax, and plaster. Like other icons, many were forms of tow and wire with beautifully-sculpted faces and hands, dressed in lovely silk clothing. The custom reached its zenith in 18th century Naples. The Metropolitan Museum has an outstanding collection of these crèche figures.
Today there are plastic Fontanini sets from Italy, plaster crèches from Bavaria, Kraków szopka from Poland, carved-wood sets from South America, paper nativities—in short the crèche tradition has as many variations as the world has cultures.  Nobody loves them more than Americans, where we translate the Holy Family into Peanuts™ characters and turn nativity sets into collectibles that we then bid up into dazzling prices in our other art form, the marketplace.
Polish nativity set, or Kraków szopka. I have a beautiful polychrome nativity set, one made of pressed clay by my kids, and a mismatched plaster set made by my sister and brother and me in Sunday school almost fifty years ago. All are equally precious to me.
I live in a place whose town triangle in December is graced not by a crèche, but by a sewer-pipe menorah. Nativity crèches have great currency even here. I get great joy from peeking at them through lighted windows this time of year.
The blessings of the season be with you!

Let me know if you’re interested in painting with me in Maine in 2014 or Rochester at any time. Click here for more information on my Maine workshops!