A Creche Reborn

In rural Connecticut, a 300-year-old nativity scene is brought back to life by the Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Madonna’s dress was of the costumes most severally damaged by the poor lighting in the barn, which faded the color of her gown from pink to white. The restorer’s solution was not to discard the original dress, but instead to reverse it, so that the gown’s back is now its front. (Robert Fenton Houser)
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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.

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.

When the abbey was first given the crèche, they had nowhere to display it. A local townsman, who thought it would be fitting for a eighteenth-century nativity scene to be housed in the equivalent of an eighteenth-century manger, had a white clapboard barn from his property moved two miles to a plot outside the abbey enclosure, where the crèche remained on display for more than 50 years. (Robert Fenton Houser)
New York philanthropist Loretta Hines Howard (1904-1982) was an avid collector of crèches. After a trip to Italy in the 1940s, she returned to America with a handcrafted, eighteenth-century crèche that she gave to the abbey in 1949. A few years later, Howard gave the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City a similar crèche, which is put on view every Christmas season in the museum’s well-known Angel Tree display. (Robert Fenton Houser)
The movie Come to the Stable lit up the celluloid screen in 1949. Starring Loretta Young, the film is based on the founding of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut, by two French nuns who left Paris after World War II to organize one of the first Benedictine communities for nuns in the United States. Almost 60 years later, the abbey is known for its women’s choir, which sings Gregorian chants, and its world-class Italian crèche. (Robert Fenton Houser)
In 2005, when the abbey decided to restore the crèche, the white clapboard barn where it had been housed was simultaneously restored. The structure was retrofitted with a reinforced roof and walls, security system, fiber optic lighting, and a temperature-controlled environment. A new pane of glass inset into the wall of the barn, behind which sits the crèche, was also replaced. (Robert Fenton Houser)
Metropolitan Museum of Art conservator Won Ng spent much of the three-year crèche restoration effort repairing the deteriorating figures and their costumes. In the process of reinforcing the bodies of the figures, Ng discovered that the crèche makers had padded the figurines to give them a more lifelike shape. The artisans used whatever was at hand, including scraps of sheet music and hymnals that are still readable today. (Robert Fenton Houser)
The first crèche dates back to 1223 when St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene to celebrate Christmas. Since then, the crèche center of the world has been Naples, Italy, where the abbey’s crèche hails from. The city’s streets are lined with antique shops specializing in the high-end nativity scenes, and crèche figures are often found with price tags of $250,000 or more, according to Jeff Daly, chief designer of the Met. (Robert Fenton Houser)
All 68 figurines in the abbey crèche were carved and painted by hand. The thoughtfully-wrought faces and body language of the figures—as they gesture their amazement and astonishment at the miracle going on around them—along with the sheer variety of the representations, from peasants in plain, serviceable clothing to elegant noblewomen in rich silks, make the abbey’s crèche one of the best in the country, according to Daly. (Robert Fenton Houser)
The abbey crèche was never restored or exposed to conservation techniques before 2005, says conservator Won Ng. This is a rarity in the art world. Well-intentioned collectors often hire conservators to restore works, and this usually results in original materials being lost or destroyed. To assure that this didn’t happen to the abbey crèche, Ng documented and archived everything that were replaced in the course of the restoration. (Robert Fenton Houser)
The Madonna’s dress was of the costumes most severally damaged by the poor lighting in the barn, which faded the color of her gown from pink to white. The restorer’s solution was not to discard the original dress, but instead to reverse it, so that the gown’s back is now its front. (Robert Fenton Houser)
Working in miniature, the crèche artisans painted lifelike details—hair, eyebrows and rosy cheeks—with just a single, paint-tipped hair. Fingernails, teeth, eyelids, even the whorls of an ear, were all carved naturalistically though each measures just a fraction of an inch. Each doll has one-of-a-kind accessories, from beaded jewelry and costumes adorned with silk embroidery to buttons, hair ribbons and neck clothes. (Robert Fenton Houser)
The crèche village scene spans only 15 x 10 feet. To achieve a sense of perspective in the small setting the artisans crafted larger figures for the foreground of the scene and smaller figures that were supposed to be far-off in the distance. This allowed the artists to create a sense of depth in a relatively shallow space. Size was also used to indicate the importance of each figure, with the largest figures occupying primary roles in the tableau. (Robert Fenton Houser)
In actuality, the abbey crèche is not a nativity scene but a scene of the Epiphany, when the Magi arrive to pay homage to Jesus. Sumptuously dressed in jewel-encrusted silks and turbans, the exotic figures of the Three Kings and their entourages stand out among the simply dressed townspeople who observe their arrival. (Robert Fenton Houser)
Women's choir at the Abbey of Regina Laudis singing Gregorian chants. (Robert Fenton Houser)
The Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, Connecticut. (Ryan Renoud)
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