The crèche, or nativity scene, of Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus is one of the most universal and enduring symbols of Christianity, and its annual display is a tradition worldwide. One history of the custom says that actors dramatically portraying the scene eventually were replaced with figurines, and lo, a new folk-art form was born. Another story credits St. Francis of Assisi, known for his love of animals, with commissioning the first display of the Mary, Joseph shepherds and farm animals gathering in a rough stable around the baby in a manger. The mise-en-scène at the Assisi monastery provided inspiration for pilgrims, who carried the ritual from Italy throughout Europe and eventually the world.
The astonishing variety of depictions that has evolved can be seen in the annual display of crèches at the Museum of Oratory of St. Joseph in Montréal. Over the decades, the Oratory has built a collection of nearly 700 nativity scenes from virtually every corner of the globe. This years display contains 300 crèches from 110 countries, and while the theme may be the same, the interpretations couldnt be more different. There are crèches made from cornhusks, carved incense paste, dried zucchini, ebony and ivory. Some are miniatures, some are life-sized. There are paintings, marionettes and astonishingly molded chocolates.
Its a challenge to review an exhibit that for some people is so sacred. From a religious point of view, I suppose what matters is the authenticity and devotional value of each display. These crèches pass muster, having been collected by a significant Roman Catholic cathedral church well known for promoting devotion to religious relics.
But I was also struck by other, secular ways to categorize the displays. Its clear that some of the creators are fine artists whose beautiful figurines, in porcelain, bronze or sculpted wood, would have meaning and impact outside of their religious context. In many other cases, the creator is an artisan or folk artist, and the nativity scene is simply Jesus, Mary and Joseph appearing in, for example, the style of typical Haitian primitivist art.
Finally, there are what Ill call the inspired amateurs, who might create an entire nativity scene from seashells and starfish, or from dried beans and rice. These are evidently purely devotional, rather than artistic, exercises.
The scenes themselves also fall into categories. The traditional nativity scene we think of in North America the humble stable and its inhabitants against a desert backdrop is rare in this exhibit, and when it appears is typically European or North American in origin. Far more interesting, for me anyway, are the minimalist scenes: intimate groupings of parents with a newborn, and nothing in particular giving a religious context to the setting.
Some of the most beautiful crèches on display are this latter type, such as the bronze trios from Mali and Burkina Faso, and carved ebony figures from Cameroon, Kenya and Malawi. Blending traditional art styles with the message of the Christian missionaries, the faces of the crèche figures from China resemble Beijing opera masks, and the Mary and Joseph from Korea wear traditional wedding garb.
Some scenes barely qualify as crèches but are truly wonderful. Ethnographic in their detailed depiction of daily life, they are as worthy of display in a museum of natural history as in one of sacred relics. From the northern territories of Canada, for example, a half-life-size diorama displays a nativity scene in the midst of an Inuit village. The rosy-cheeked Mary is decked out in a furry hooded parka, and the baby Jesus is wrapped papoose-like in a bearskin robe.
An Alaskan scene includes a walrus instead of ox and ass, and one of the three kings is arriving by dogsled bearing a whole basketful of king crabs. In the Nepalese crèche, Jesus is guarded by a wooly mammoth, which makes sense because all the figurines are made of wool felt. In another display a traditional Provençal boulanger delivers a pannier of baguettes to the manger. A Rwandan contribution comprises 70 pieces, all sculpted from cedar and covered with a polished black-wax finish. This one is decidedly martial, with a tiny nativity scene off to one side and almost all the other figurines carrying spears and shields. In the same display, a priest kneels by a coffin, corpse included.
The most questionable artistic taste appears in the ethnographic category, created by inspired amateurs using materials on hand. One, which we dubbed GI Joe and Barbie have a baby, needs no more description. In another, we spotted the plastic miniature horses that little girls collected before My Little Pony came along. The worst example is simply titled A Smurf Christmas.
The curator for the exhibition, André Bergeron, is a lithographer who creates the posters for this annual event. He selects the crèches to be presented each year, and works with a team of volunteers to fabricate the displays. While traveling in Europe, he collects beautiful crèches for the collection, often through his contacts in art circles.
Donations also come to the Oratory unsolicited, either by individual artists or during formal presentations by huge delegations from countries not wanting to be overlooked. The three-story red-and-silver aluminum castle from Poland was one such donation, commissioned for the Oratorys collection and presented ceremonially by the Polish Consulate. Whats a curator to do?
The crèches are on display every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., through February 18 at the Museum of the St. Joseph Oratory, 3800 Queen Mary. Admission to the museum is by voluntary donation, and the staff is bilingual.