Neapolitan Presepio (Crèche)
Some years ago on one February day, a brother of the Canons Regular of St. John Cantius noticed that 20 of the most valuable figures of our Presepio were missing. All hope of ever recovering the missing figures seemed to be lost when—a year and a half later—a plain cardboard box containing the figures arrived anonymously during the Octave of Easter.
Today, our mid-eighteenth century Neapolitan Presepio is on permanent display in our Church’s museum room. It is one of only four museum quality Presepios in America. 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.
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.
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.
Our stunning, museum-quality Neapolitan Praesepio, is just one of the Sacred Art treasures on display at St. John Cantius Church altogether aimed at restoring the Sacred in all things.