The Art of the Christmas Crèche


A stunning, museum-quality Neapolitan Praesepio (nativity scene), is one of the sacred art treasures on display at St. John Cantius.Learn more about the incredible masterpiece of art as you explore this article with video and photos.

The Praesepio at St. John Cantius

Dating from the mid-18th century, this Neapolitan Praesepio came to St. John Cantius Church in late 1998 from Rome from the last descendant of a family that had owned it for generations. The Praesepio was acquired by the A.M.D.G. Foundation, a Chicago based organization dedicated to the preservation of sacred art, and is on permanent loan to our parish.  The Praesepio shows three scenes in a setting eight feet wide by six feet high.  The middle section is the Nativity scene with the Holy Family, Three Kings, and other worshipers.  On the left, the bagpipers and the shepherds with their sheep are coming down from the mountains to see the Baby Jesus. The right section shows a Neapolitan village with outdoor “cucina,” houses and shops. 

The display is comprised of more than two hundred rare and original sculptures and objects. The base building and landscape are made of cork. The figures are handmade in the ancient manner: the bodies are fashioned from hemp and wire, the heads are molded in terracotta with eyes of glass and the hands and feet are carved out of wood. The figures are all perfectly balanced to stand upright and flexible so they can be positioned in setting of the Praesepio. They are clothed in the traditional 18th century peasant dress of Naples.

The Art of the Praesepio

The Praesepio is the Italian version of the Nativity Scene or Creche, only much larger.  The Praesepio reached its zenith in Naples, Italy in the mid-eighteenth century.  Elaborate scenes depicting a “classic” Bethlehem were created. 

Figures of Jesus, Mary and Joseph formed the central figures. Local individuals became the models for Kings, Shepherds, Aristocrats, Servants, Paupers, and Jesters. Archangels and Seraphim announce the birth of Jesus.  Beasts of burden to the smallest of farm animals and domestic pets complete the images of the scene at Bethlehem.  Proportions range from miniature to life-sized figures. Materials also vary, but the most cherished pieces are handmade clay and fabric according to centuries old practices.  All these elements form the “Art of the Præsepio.”

The Missing Praesepio

Friends of our Praesepio may remember when twenty of our most cherished figures were stolen.  All hope seemed to be lost of ever recovering these precious works of art. However, a year and a half later, the figures were returned anonymously. All twenty figures arrived undamaged in the mail on a feast of the Blessed Virgin Mary.

A Visitor’s Experience of the Praesepio

Take an in-depth look at the art of the St. John Cantius praesepio with Alexis Xenakis, of CrecheMania.com. The above photos and video are courtesy Alexis.

“And right here, in Chicago, in front of my eyes is this exquisite installation of 18th century Neapolitan devotional art. ... A look at the Madonna—her serene face is crowned by a copper halo—gives you an idea of the exquisite art of the Neapolitan artists and artisans who created the St. John Cantius Praesepio…”
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Chicago Christmas

Patrons of the Praesepio

Consider becoming a Patron of the Praesepio. Your tax-deductable donation will help preserve and maintain this cherished work of art. To find out how you can become a patron or to inquire about the levels of support contact:

      Father C. Frank Phillips, C.R.
      825 N. Carpenter St.
      Chicago, Illinois 60642
      .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)
      312-243-7373