If, like me, you're enchanted by the Christmas tradition of the crèche, then this blog post is for you. My friend, Jonathan Preece, recently sent me photos of a Neapolitan crèche that he staged in a Mill Neck, New York house. The homeowners, who are clients of Bunny Williams, Preece's employer, were inspired to start collecting antique Neapolitan crèche figures after learning of the impressive collections of both Williams and her husband, John Rosselli.
The tradition of the crèche, or nativity scene, can be traced back to 1223, when Saint Francis of Assisi created the first one using living figures. Meant to represent the Nativity, or birth of Christ, a crèche includes the figures of baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Angels, the Magi (or Three Wise Men,) shepherds, animals, and, sometimes, townspeople. According to Jonathan, these crèches reached a height of artistic excellence in eighteenth-century Naples, Italy, where this traditional craft is still being practiced today. One of the more famous Neapolitan crèches is that at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which draws crowds every Christmas.
In the Mill Neck house, Jonathan has assembled the crèche on a table set in the bay window of the dining room. The traditional stable, which, of course, holds baby Jesus and the manger, was made by Charles Dort, while artist Ron Genereux created the crumbling walls, fences, and Classical ruins out of foam and clay. Placed against this landscape are the antique Neapolitan figures, whose heads, hands, and feet are made of painted terracotta and whose bodies are fabricated from wire wrapped in hemp. The figures' clothing is mostly silk and linen, with many of them bearing delicate embroidery. (Make sure to expand the images of the Magi, below, whose costumes are exquisite.) And placed gingerly around the scene are small spot and up-lights, which provide "magical illumination," says Jonathan. Finally, around the edges of the crèche are Columnar Cedars and Cypress, terracotta oil jars, urns, and mossy-clad pots filled with White Narcissus.
As a bonus, Jonathan also sent me photos of Bunny Williams' spectacular Neapolitan crèche, which Jonathan assembled on the Conservatory console in Bunny's Connecticut house. Alongside her antique Neapolitan figures, Bunny has added pieces that are not so period, such as leather bulls and animals from India. The effect is a delightful celebration of the Christmas season. You can see photos of Bunny's crèche at the bottom of this post.
And now, Bunny's Neapolitan crèche in her Connecticut house:
All photos courtesy of Jonathan Preece