The Crèche’s Cast of Characters

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Katie Rahn
December 16, 2014

A work made of figures: polychromed terracotta heads with painted glass eyes, wooden limbs, and bodies of wire wrapped in hemp; clothing made variously of 18th- or 19th-century silks, cottons, linens, leather, and paper, some with metallic threads; some figures with additional elements in gold, silver, pearl, coral, ivory, bone, and wood; additional smaller figures composed entirely of polychromed terracotta or polychromed carved wood

animals: polychromed terracotta, painted wood, iron, and lead; some with painted glass eyes and additional elements in leather, string, and metal

objects: painted terracotta, copper, iron, silver or other metals, ceramic, wax, raw clay, paper, glass, fabric, string, straw, basket fibers, alabaster, and marble

furniture: wood, metal, leather, and fabric

setting: cork, wood, papier-mâché, twigs, and moss with watercolor and gouache

the crèche is housed in a 19th-century cabinet with a late-18th-century carved and gilded cornice..
Crèche, 1725–1775
Naples

The Art Institute’s spectacular Neapolitan crèche features over 200 figures in its intricate Nativity scene—including no less than 50 animals and 41 items of food and drink—all staged in a Baroque cabinet with a painted backdrop.

There are quite a few characters in the crèche who are probably instantly recognizable to most people—Jesus, Mary, Saint Joseph, angels, shepherds, the Three Wise Men—but because the crèche involves scenes of daily life, many of the figures might seem a bit more anonymous. But you can actually learn quite a lot about the Christmas story and life in 18th-century Naples if you look closely. Here’s some insider information to help you decipher some clues and learn more about the figures in the crèche:

Creche-Benito.jpg

The character of Benito—located in the far right recesses of the crèche—is actually quite common in Neapolitan crèches of the period. This figure is always dressed in blue and is always sound asleep. He is completely oblivious of the star and the announcement of the angel, symbolizing all of those who do not listen to the news of the birth of Jesus.

Creche-Georgiana.jpg

The name of this woman on the left is La Georgiana, referencing the fact that she hails from Georgia, located in the Caucasus. She’s dressed in Turkish attire, with billowing pants, a tight embroidered vest, and men’s pointy-toed red boots, and symbolizes the exotic ethnicities that have come to Naples. This outfit would have been meticulously crafted on a miniature loom and is most likely made from silk from the royal silk factory in San Leucio.

Creche-jewelry.jpg

The jewelry worn by the figures was not made by miniature artists, but rather the same jewelers who bedecked the Neapolitan elite. Around this woman’s neck is a necklace made of real coral. Greek mythology holds that coral came from Medusa’s blood, which fell into the Mediterranean when she was decapitated. Neapolitans believed that coral had protective powers against evil and bad luck. If you look closely, you can see many of the ladies in the crèche wearing coral necklaces and earrings. To see these figures in person, you can visit the crèche in Gallery 209 through January 6.

—Katie Rahn

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