For six weeks each year, a dramatic work of religious art is unveiled in Chicago. The Christmas season is the only time to see a rare Nativity scene that blends both spiritual and earthly pursuits. “Chicago Tonight” visited the Art Institute and found an elaborate piece of art originally seen in churches in 18th century Naples.
Phil Ponce: It is called a "crèche." It's a traditional Nativity scene with the infant Jesus, the Holy Family, and the three Wise Men. But this one has a cast of hundreds.
Rebecca Long, Art Institute of Chicago: A crèche is a scene that at the very core shows the scene of the birth of Christ. In the Neapolitan tradition that we’re showing here, you’ll see that that expands to a whole cast of characters, so it includes the arrival of the three kings, the Magi, it also includes the annunciation of Christ’s birth to the shepherds and then a whole tavern scene which brings in Neapolitan street life or characters from daily life in Naples in the 18th and early 19th century.
Ponce: Yes, the surrounding setting is Naples, not Bethlehem. Costumes reflect the Neapolitan fashions of the late 18th century. It's a mix of the contemporary–for the era–with the origin story of Christ.
This crèche was made in Naples, beginning in the mid-1700s, by artists and craftsman commissioned by the Catholic church and local nobility. They really went for Baroque.
Long: The making of the crèche really became very particular in the 18th century. It sort of became an assembly line process where one artist specialized in making the terracotta heads of the figures and in painting them. Another artist would make the actual wire armature of the body that can then be molded and articulated; an artist would make the silk costume, specialist artists would make the animals that populate the scene and also the small still life objects so that the silver table settings were actually made by silversmiths, and the miniature instruments were made by lute-makers.
Ponce: Installed in a 14-by-15 foot cabinet, the crèche is a theatrical scene filled to the corners with ingeniously crafted figures.
Long: The figures are made from a mix of materials, and we have on view in the gallery an example of how the figures are put together. So the body of the figure is a wire armature that’s covered in a hemp-like, straw-like material so that the arms and legs can be bent and arranged to help with the assembly of the scene, and then it has a terra cotta head that’s painted, and most of the time the hands and the feet are made of wood or of terracotta as well, and then a real silk costume is put on top and covers all of that armature.
Ponce: The silk costumes are the reason the crèche must remain in the dark for much of the year.
Long: We’re only able to exhibit the crèche for about six weeks a year over the Christmas season and that’s because the materials are very fragile, the original silk costumes are likely to fade and so it has to rest in the darkness for the great majority of the year, which is a great excuse for us to have this celebration around it every year at Christmas time.
Ponce: There are believed to be only a dozen crèches in the world of this quality and scale. The Art Institute acquired theirs from an Italian collector in 2013. It had been assembled in ad hoc fashion over years and comes from different sources.
Though it is only on view about 40 days per year, the crèche is too big to move.
Long: When we close this exhibition every year we actually install a wall in front of it in the gallery and keep it in the dark for the great majority of the year. When you come and visit the museum in the off-season you would never know that it’s hiding behind the wall.
The Art Institute’s crèche is in the European Painting and Sculpture Galleries through Jan. 7, 2018.
Note: This story first aired on Chicago Tonight on Dec. 21, 2015. It has been updated.
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