Year 1 - n.4 - September 2001



Maria Hubert von Staufer

"Britain has nothing to offer in the field of Nativity Art". This, I was told by an eminent Nativitist in Austria in 1984.

From the point of view of the high art of the 17th - 19th centuries in Catholic Europe, he was correct. Britain during those centuries was still suffering the repression following the Reformation in the 16th century and the 17th century Civil War and Puritan repression under Oliver Cromwell, and all such art was frowned upon. Even in the religious era of Queen Victoria, Protestant England imported its Nativity and other religious art from Italy and Germany. The old art forms of England had been forgotten, specifically the fine religious statues executed by the Alablasterers of Nottingham in the Middle Ages, and Britains most prolific artform, embroidery. Coming from a background in Church History and Theology, and with a respectably 

well-known reputation as a 'Christmas Historian', I felt compelled to investigate and even to try to do something about this matter! Studying the different Nativity artwork in Europe showed me traditional figurines; even the contemporary art was being beautifully made on traditional lines. British artists today could not compete with this rich tradition I was sure. But I persevered, and over the next two years I was to find artists in many disciplines - some fine, some folk - all of whom wanted to express their artform in Nativity art, but had never been asked nor inspired to do so. The culmination of this effort was a major international exhibition at the prestigious Barbican Centre in London England, with some 200 examples of Nativity art from all over the world, forty of which were from Britain. No such exhibition had ever been granted such status in Britain previously and visitors included the British Royal Family President Gorbachev's wife, Raisa, with the wife of America's then secretary of state, George Schultz, all of whom had private viewing. One of the finest was a slate sculpture made by Reg Beech, a monumental mason who had worked on major cathedrals in Wales and the UK. He created a Celtic stylised carving of the Three Kings. All artforms were represented including wood, glass, paper art, silver and hammered pewterwork, stone, and of course many examples of fine English embroidery. That was in 1984. Since then, modern and folk styled Nativity art had blossomed, and even the traditional European capitals of Nativity art have, in the past 18 years, shown some unusual ideas in modern folk art.  

Folk art has always been with us of course, some beautiful works such as the mechanical Nativity in a mine, with all the figures representing the village people and those who worked in the mines, which can be seen in the Folk Museum in Dresden, and the Snow Village Crèche in the Toy Museum, Seiffen in the former Eastern Germany; some bizarre -an excellent example of these extremes is to be seen in the Salzburger Landesmuseum in Austria, where in the 20th century the opera singer Richard Meyer had a set 

of crèche figures made with every face, including the faces of the Holy Infant and the Virgin Mary, being an image of his own countenance! Perhaps the most attractive of these folk cribs are the Polish Szopka. Based on the centuries old tradition of the carriers of the 'Glad Tidings' who used to travel from village to village, carrying a portable church-like theatre and puppets with which they would enact the story of the Birth of Christ, these 'Szopke' are Nativity scenes set in an architecturally accurate model of St Stefan's Church, in Krakow, with its twin towers and curfew balcony. These are made in all sizes by people from all over Poland, and taken to the main square in Krakow in December for a special competition sponsored by the ethnographic Museum. The winner has their crèche kept and exhibited by the museum, the rest are sold in a Christmas Crèche market after the competition is over.
America and Canada began to make an impact into the Nativity field of art in the 1980's too. There are modern examples by American Indians. One made by a Canadian Indian, Keena, shows, in place of the Three Kings, chieftains representing the major Indian Nations - Inuit, the Plains and the Woodlands Indians worshipping at the manger, with Bison, fox and bear instead of the more traditional Ox and Ass. 
We at the Anglo-Celtic Society began early work in America following a message from His Holiness in the late 1980's, encouraging our work and extorting us to spread the love of the Crèche in all the English speaking countries. Unfortunately, our budget and our volunteers were too limited to make more than a brief contribution to this effort. However, inspired by that message from John Paul II, we did what we could to give an example to be followed by those more able to do so and since then we have been delighted to see a Museum of Nativity art in Australia, after its founder, Mrs Mullekom, visited my own Christmas Museum in Hakodate Japan. And in America, the Crèche Herald is a popular newspaper dedicated to the Friends of the Crib, which has developed from a small news-sheet, which I am pleased to say I was able to encourage in its early days. 

So although the English Speaking Society has no influence in these areas now, it is wonderful to see the 'pupils' outgrow the 'professor' in status!
As a traditionalist, my personal inclination for a family house crèche, is still the fine figures from old established Italian artisan families such as Lepi, and the porcelain Nativity sets made by the Spanish firm Lladro. But I cannot resist the quaint folk crèche from the village artisans of Europe, with figures dressed in regional costume, or those following even more ancient customs of 'good luck' symbols. In the Christmas markets in Mallorca for example, last year, I explored the many stalls selling traditional crèche figures I added an electrically lit stove to my traditional set. But In the village of Portol, I purchased a white plaster crèche; shaped by hand only using no tools and 

painted in slashes of red and green following a custom for local good luck statuary.During the height of its popularity, the Anglo-Celtic Society amassed a collection of 1800 items of Nativity art - many unique commissions - from all over the world. 

 With the death in 1994 of Dom. Kevin Mason OSB, of St Mary of the Angels Priory in Cardiff, Wales, the sponsorship and the venue for the Society gatherings, was lost, and a small handful of volunteers kept going for five years more, until lack of funds and ill health made it 

impossible to continue. 

Whilst running the Society has become impossible for me to manage alone, I am working on a Nativitists page for my website, which should be ready by Christmas 2002. This will mean that I can still reach all the English Speaking Nativitists, without having to bother about administering subscriptions,  editing newsletters etc..  My site is to be found at www.christmasarchives.comThe Society's Crèche collection was divided between the International Crèche Museum in Brembo, Italy; the Felissimo-Christmas Archives Museum in Hakodate Japan, and the Society 

headquarters in England. Now  due to further lack of space, the six hundred left in the Society will have to be sold, with just a few examples being kept for the sake of visitors.


Copyright Maria Hubert von Staufer 2001