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The Art of the Christmas Creche

The Art of the Christmas Creche -18th Century Neapolitan Presepio Restored and Open to the Public

One of only four museum quality Presepios in America, St. John Cantius Parish’s Neapolitan Presepio is newly restored, cleaned, and on display in the lower level of the Church just in time for Christmas.

The Presepio is a traditional art form, which is the Italian version of the Nativity Scene or crèche—only much larger. The Presepio reached its zenith in mid-eighteenth century Naples when artists elaborately re-created Bethlehem, intertwined with various elements of an Italian village.

Under the supervision of Nick Chapello, we are very grateful for the expertise of David and Liné Tutwiler of Tutwiler Fine Art working to restore, clean, and maintain this world class work of art the parish received 25 years ago. We welcome the public once again to view this stunning display during this Christmas season.

On Sunday, December 4th, Fr. Joshua Caswell, SJC blessed the newly restored and cleaned 18th Century Neapolitan Presepio permanently on display in the lower level of St. John Cantius Church just in time for Christmas.

A Little Neapolitan Presepio History-

Figures of the Baby Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are the central motif of the Presepio. Local individuals known to everyone in the artist’s village became models for kings, shepherds, aristocrats, merchants, servants, paupers, and jesters. Archangels and Seraphim hover overhead announcing the birth of Jesus. Beasts of burden down to the smallest farm animals and domestic pets complete the images of the scene at Bethlehem. In the middle we see the Nativity scene with the Holy Family, Three Kings, and other worshipers. On the left, bagpipers and shepherds with their sheep are coming down from the mountains to see the Baby Jesus. The right section shows a Neapolitan village with an outdoor cucina (kitchen), houses and shops. Proportions range from miniature to life-sized figures. Materials also vary, but the most important figures are traditionally fashioned from clay and fabric according to centuries-old practices.

The display is comprised of more than 200 rare and original figures, sculptures, and objects. The structure and landscape are made of cork. The figures are handmade in the traditional manner: bodies fashioned from hemp and wire; heads modeled in terracotta with eyes of glass; and hands and feet carved from wood. The figures are clothed in the traditional eighteenth-century dress of Naples and are all perfectly balanced to stand upright and flexible so they can be positioned in the setting of the Presepio.

The creche was acquired by the A.M.D.G. Foundation—a Chicago based non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of sacred art—in late 1998 from the last descendant of a family in Rome who had owned it for generations. It is now on permanent loan to our parish.

Our stunning, museum-quality Neapolitan Presepio, is just one of the Sacred Art treasures on display at St. John Cantius Church altogether aimed at restoring the Sacred in all things.


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