There are no less than 50 animals in the museum’s Neapolitan crèche, including dogs, cows, goats, sheep, chickens, horses, rabbits, and even a pet monkey. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the creatures figure prominently in the scene portraying the announcement of Jesus’s birth to the shepherds, but they are also included throughout the crèche for a variety of different reasons.
Tiny lambs are placed throughout the crèche, despite the fact that sheep generally give birth in the spring, rather than during the winter solstice, the time of Christ’s birth. However, the presence of the lambs symbolizes the innocence of the Christ Child and foreshadows Christ’s sacrifice.
Herding dogs are mixed with the sheep and goats, but if you look closely, you’ll also find hunting dogs. These animals wouldn’t have been relevant from a religious perspective, but reflected the favorite activity of the Neapolitan king and aristocracy.
While the crèche is symbolic on many levels—religious, cultural, mythological, political—it includes elements that also make it a charming scene, such as this rabbit perched on a nibbled winter squash.
To see these animals in person, you can visit the crèche in Gallery 209 through January 11.
Image Credit: Crèche (details), 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.