Along a stretch of scenic winding road, the turn-off to one of the country’s most exquisite artworks is marked only by a small sign, “Pax Crèche.” But every year thousands of people find their way to a 300-year-old hand-crafted nativity scene displayed in a white clapboard barn on the grounds of a monastery. A treasured work at the Abbey of Regina Laudis, home of cloistered Benedictine nuns, the creche is fittingly located in Bethlehem, a tiny town in western Connecticut. After a three-year restoration by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the baroque Lilliputian figures return to refurbished nativity setting this month.
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Dubbed a “Rembrandt or Rubens” of crèches by Met chief designer Jeff Daly, the 68 pieces were carved, molded and painted by artists in Naples, Italy, and given to the King of Sardinia in 1720 as a coronation gift.
The figures, 68 in all, measure only 5 to 16 inches but create a majestic tableau with a serene, rosy-cheeked Mary in pink silk as the central figure. She displays the baby Jesus as the Three Kings, wearing tiny turbans and colorful silks with gold embroidery, present their gifts while peasants and nobles observe the drama, their terra cotta faces registering surprise and awe.
The restoration of the creche was a unique process, according to Met conservator Won Ng. Despite insect infestation and centuries of grime, the figurines were “pristine—never having been restored or exposed to old conservation techniques.” Ng preserved the authenticity of the artwork by first taking photographs of each piece in order to create a museum-quality record of the conservation. Then the figures—each made of linen bundles wrapped in wire armatures—were painstakingly cleaned and repaired. Ng used delicate brushes and mild solutions, some as basic as distilled water, to remove centuries of dust and dirt. On a few occasions, a doll’s wooden hands and feet had to be reconstructed or replaced. With strong magnifying glasses, fine needles and thread dyed to match the cloth, Ng also mended and bolstered the costumes of the figures. Each figure took anywhere from several hours to a few days to completely restore, but Ng counts every minute as worthwhile. “My lasting impression is of the artistic ingenuity and craftsmanship of the creche. We’ve done well by the collection.”
Reinstalled in the barn, the crèche sits in a climate-controlled exhibition case built into the wall of the barn. The display window’s walls are decorated with a mural of the skyline of Naples, with the unmistakable outline of Mount Vesuvius on the horizon. Ng has mounted the restored figurines in a rustic Italian village setting, 15 by 10 feet, made of painted cork bark, mosses and papier-mâché on wood support structures. It was built in thirteen sections that fit together like a jigsaw puzzle. The original creche artisans had designed and styled the built-to-scale setting to look like their own eighteenth-century Naples, a hilly landscape of scrubby bushes and trees dotted with clusters of thatch-roofed houses. The creche figures represent all walks of life and are sprinkled throughout the panorama.
Pausing in his duties, a ruddy-faced lamplighter in plain homespun pauses to carouse with his fellows in the village streets. Townswomen in their fripperies cluster around gossiping. A peasant woman in a threadbare skirt heads home from the market. At the center of the scene is the Holy Family. But instead of marking the Nativity with a manger, the artists situated the trio beneath the ruins of a Corinthian column, a visual connection to the oldest, most sacred place in Italy—Rome.
The crèche was donated to the abbey in 1949 by Loretta Hines Howard, a New York painter and collector, who had purchased it during a trip to Italy. She gave it to the monastery as a memorial to her deceased husband.
The Abbey of Regina Laudis, a complex of low-lying farmhouses, cottages and even a former brass factory that sit behind high enclosure walls, was founded in 1948 and sits on a 400-acre farm with orchards, apiaries and livestock, all tended by 38 resident nuns. Five times a day the abbey choir sings Gregorian chants. Sometimes visitors stop in to hear the ancient Latin music but most come to gaze upon the world-class miniature of a miracle.