In New York City, the official beginning of the Christmas festivities is marked not by the sparkling decorations that lighten up the sky and city beyond the unimaginable; or by the human flood of tourists converging on Rockefeller Center to be awed by the annual gigantic Christmas’s tree there; or by the crowded sidewalk of Radio City Music Hall seeking tickets for the Rockettes annual Christmas performance. No, the official beginning of the season in New York City commences right after the Thanksgiving Holiday at the end of November, marking the start of this joyous season with the lighting of the Metropolitan Museum’s Christmas tree placed in the center of the stately Medieval Sculpture Hall, adorned with priceless Neapolitan ornaments together with a Neapolitan Baroque crèche representing the Nativity, renewing each year a time-honored tradition that transforms that corner of the Museum into an eighteenth century vision of one of Naples’s most famous and beloved artistic practices.
Even though the iconography of the Nativity is already present in Italian fourteenth century paintings, as well as in Gothic carved altarpieces and in glazed terracotta works like those by Luca Della Robbia and his Florentine workshop, it was only after the Catholic Reformation in 1563 - which issued precise norms for devotion and worship - that the representation of Nativity scenes, called crèche (or presepe/presepio in Italian), migrated from the enclosed space of the churches into the private houses in the form of little figures and stage like sets, encouraged as an expression of popular devotion and effective tool of religious education. In Naples it became widely favoured especially under the king Charles III of Bourbon (1716-1788), who asked renowned artists like sculptor Giuseppe Sanmartino (1720-1793), already involved with the Royal Porcelain Factory of Capodimonte, to produce more sophisticated statuettes. Polychromed terracotta figures, masterfully shaped and painted, replaced the previous wooden ones, giving to the characters represented extreme elegance and lifelike delicacy of the expression, echoing Sanmartino’s statues sculpted in Carrara marble.
Also, Baroque’s passion for theatre and scenery enriched the display with various and extraordinarily detailed scenes of the colorful daily life unfolding along the narrow streets and squares: the vicoli and piazzette –of early 18th century Naples with the Holy Family at the center, surrounded by angels and shepherds, the setting became animated by country and town people engaged in their craft or trade, like the vintner in the tavern or street vendors with their various edibles which also symbolize the twelve months of the year: January as the butcher; February as the seller of cheese and ricotta; March as the seller of poultry; April as the seller of eggs; May as a newlywed couple with a basket of fruit; June as a baker, and so on … The rendition of all these foods and delicacies is so realistic that we can almost smell and taste them. Similarly, peasant figures of the Metropolitan’s crèche convey, with rare irony and lightness, the secular atmosphere of a cosmopolitan, good-natured but indolent city (Naples itself) of the early eighteenth century through their naturalistic pose and facial expression, contrasting with the elegant and refined cherubs and figures of The Holy Family, already winking at the Neoclassical style.
The display of the Christmas tree - typical of the Northern Europe tradition - together with the crèche spread in Italy during the nineteenth century, and continues to be replicated in that fashion at the Metropolitan Museum ever since its first installation in 1957, when it was loaned - and later donated – by collector and artist Loretta Hines Howard. Mrs. Howard's daughter, Linn Howard, worked with her mother for many years on the annual installation, and after her death in 1982, she has continued the beloved tradition with her own daughter, artist Andréa Selby: All the crèche’s figures and tree’s decorations are meticulously set up in time for Thanksgiving’s weekend working carefully behind large, tall screens, with intrigued children and adults alike waiting for the removal of these screens. And then, when the job is completed and the screens disappear, there is a hushed breathless excitement as viewers participate in the sheer joy and marvel at this beautiful magical scene, connecting us to the past and bridging it to the future for other generations to repeat and enjoy.
Opening Image Credit: Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche ©The Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Christmas Tree Fund and the Loretta Hines Howard Fund.