The Nativity is one of the most popular scenes in Christian art and iconography. During the late Medieval and Renaissance periods, artist depictions followed the two New Testament descriptions of the event by St. Matthew and St. Luke. The main focus of the scene is the Holy Family in the stable at Bethlehem, with the Infant Christ lying in a manger, and the Virgin Mary kneeling in adoration with the elderly Joseph looking on. Following St. Matthew's account, artists included the Adoration of the Magi, the three wise men from the East who followed the star and came to Jerusalem seeking the king of the Jews. When the Magi arrived in Bethlehem, they "saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him." Following Luke's narrative, the Nativity often inclludes the Annunciation to the Shepherds and the Adoration of the Shepherds, in which these humble men "found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger" and marveled at what they saw. The Holy Family is usually placed near ancient Roman ruins that allude to the ascendancy of the Christian era over the Pagan world, and the Infant Christ is frequently accompanied by a lamb as reference to his future sacrifice.
St. Francis of Assisi (ca. 1181-1226) is credited with being the first person to reenact the Nativity. In December 1223, he prepared a straw-filled manger with figures of animals in a natural cave near the town of Greccio to celebrate Christmas Eve mass. Numerous claims of miracles followed this event, and recreating the Nativity with sculptural figures became increasingly popular during the thirteenth-century in churches during Christmas. This practice spread throughout Europe, but was especially associated with Italy. As time passed, rich and prominent Italian families commissioned Nativity groups for themselves, and sometimes had the figures made by prominent sculptors. Some of the earliest figures were made entirely of wood. Later artisians crafted the bodies of hemp wrapped in wire, and made the limbs and heads with terracotta. The eyes were made of glass. Clothes were specially made for each figure, and in some cases miniature jewelry was added.
These Nativity scenes are known as crèches or presepi. Crèche is a French word of Germanic origin that originally meant manger, the trough or open box used for livestock feed in which the Infant Jesus was placed after his birth. Italians refer to the Nativity as "il presepe" (pl. "presepi") a descendant of the Latin word praesaepe, a combination of prae, "in front," and saepire, "to enclose," thus manger or stall.
A number of regional styles for presepi developed that varied from town to town, depending on the geographical area and historical period. It was in eighteenth-century Naples, however, that the representation of the Nativity attained its more elaborate form. There presepi evolved into dramatic scenes that often embellished or completely added to the original biblical narrative. This tradition still lives on in Via San Gregorio Armeno, a narrow street in the center of Naples that is crowded with hundreds of artisian workshops with colorful window displays and stalls overflowing with Nativity scenes. The Museo Nazinale di San Martino in Naples is noted for its monumental collection of figures called: "Il Presepe Cuiniello."
Authentic crèche collections are extremely rare in the United States. Jewel Younger Graeber of Marks, Mississippi, assembled this extraordinary group of more than one hundred figures, ranging from six to twenty-two inches in height. As mentioned before, she was inspired to collect crèche figures after viewing that "Annual Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche" at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Although Graeber was struck by its aesthetic beauty, she was particularly impressed with the way it appealed to the children in the gallery. She resolved to provide the same kind of experience for the children of Marks, Mississippi, and the Mid-South region.
Graeber continues to add rare pieces to the collection with the help of auction houses like Sotheby's and Christie's. Her daughter, Gay Graeber Stubbs, is the curator of the collection and has assisted in restoring some of the figures and developing the base and landscape setting.
In addition to the traditional figures of Joseph, Mary, Jesus, and the Three Magi, the collection includes approximately twenty angels and over seventy-five people from all walks of life.
Genorously Sponsored by:
Mrs. James A. Lynn
Julie D. and J. Mitchell Collins
Dina and Brad Martin