Neapolitan Crèche


The Art Institute of Chicago acquired a Neapolitan Crèche a couple years ago. Every year I say I’ll go and time always runs out. It’s only displayed about 6 weeks a year because the figures’ silk outfits are so fragile. Made in the mid-18th century, this nativity scene exemplifies those of the day. Historically, nativity scenes started simply. They’d only feature Mary, Jesus and Joseph. Then St. Francis got permission to exhibit living scenes and he added all the animals.


In time in Naples people really got into lavish displays. They’d compete with their frenemies to make the best and biggest scenes.

All scenes from this era would have Mary, Jesus, Joseph, angels, shepherds, Three Kings* and all sorts of additional characters. They’d have three sections. On the right is the angels proclaiming Jesus’ birth to the shepherds. There’s always one shepherd who’s asleep and will miss going to see the Christ child. Then there’s an elaborate nativity scene with the principle figures in the center. On the left there’s a tavern scene to show boisterous, i.e. profane life of the common folk.


She wears real coral

You can examine this piece again and again and continue to find new drama and characters.

*The Bible never specifies three kings, but somehow that’s become the legend.

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