The Art Institute's Neapolitan Crèche is not only one of the museum's most recent acquisitions, but it's also the most complete version of a crèche of its kind outside of Naples. It's also quite a complicated piece—it's made up of more than 200 figures and took several weeks to install—so here are just a few highlights. Over the next few weeks, we'll take a closer look at some of the details, so consider this your 101.
– According to legend, crèches date back to the 13th century, but examples like this one gained popularity in the 18th century. During this time, Italian nobility would compete to see who could have the largest and most intricate crèche.
– There are three main parts: the Nativity, the Annunciation to the shepherds, and the tavern scene. It might seem surprising that a tavern scene plays such a prominent role, but Neapolitans wanted to see themselves in the crèche so there are ordinary people who represent many professions, including butchers, musicians, and cheesemongers.
– There are 50 animals in the crèche, including horses, cows, sheep, goats, chickens, turkeys, dogs, and cats.
– The architecture is inspired by Naples itself. Look for arches, gateways, and Roman columns reminiscent of 18th-century Naples.
– Many of the figures in the crèche wear their original silk garments made in the royal silk factory in San Leucio.
– The objects that make up the crèche were often not made by miniaturists, but by specialists who recreated their wares in miniature. For example, the jewelry was fashioned by jewelers and includes coral, which was highly prized at the time.
– And perhaps most importantly, due to its delicate nature, it can only be on view for five weeks every year. This year, it will go off view on January 8, so don't wait!
Crèche, mid-18th century. Naples. Charles H. and Mary F. Worcester Collection, Ada Turnbull Hertle, Eloise W. Martin Legacy and Lacy Armour funds; restricted gifts of Mr. and Mrs. James N. Bay, Linda and Vincent Buonanno and Family, and Mrs. Robert O. Levitt.