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The Neapolitan Crèche

Though the Museum is closed right now, we invite you to learn more about the history of the Neapolitan Crèche.

Woman holding a baby surrounded by people, angels, and goats
Naples, Italy, “Nativity Scene (Crèche)”, mid-18th century. Polychromed terracotta, painted wood, and fabric, on a later support. Dimensions variable. Gift of Loretta Howard Sturgis, M2006.9.1-.20. Photo by John R. Glembin.

Around this time each year the Museum places its beloved Neapolitan crèche in the galleries. But because the Museum is temporarily closed through the holiday season, we unfortunately can’t share the crèche with you in person. I invite you, however, to read on to learn more about it, and about the history of restaging the Nativity scene.

The origin of the popular Christmas tradition of restaging the Nativity scene is usually credited to Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223. It was in eighteenth-century Naples that the custom reached its artistic height. Neapolitan nobles and aristocrats vied to outdo each other in presenting theatrical crèche (or presepio) displays with elaborate figures clothed in luxurious costumes.

These scenes, of course, featured the Holy Family: the Virgin Mary; her husband, Joseph; and the baby Jesus. But they also included angels, putti, shepherds, the Magi, and a host of barnyard animals. The most elaborate scenes mixed the sacred and the secular, recreating aspects of daily life in Naples such as the market and resulting in a lively scene that could fill entire rooms. You can get a sense of what these looked like from crèche installations in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago and the Carnegie Museum of Art, in Pittsburgh.

Even King Charles III of Spain, who in 1734 added Naples to his domain, took up the hobby popular with the Italian aristocrats. At its height, his collection included almost six thousand figures!

Naples, Italy, “Nativity Scene (Crèche)”, mid–18th century (detail). Polychromed terracotta, painted wood, and fabric, on a later support. Dimensions variable. Gift of Loretta Howard Sturgis, M2006.9.1-.20. Photo by John R. Glembin.

The intricate settings in which the figures were placed were built of cork, wood, and plaster and incorporated elements of the landscape of southern Italy. Few of these fragile stages survive. Until 2013, the display that the Milwaukee Art Museum used was a twentieth-century creation. In 2019, thanks to a few generous donors, we unveiled a new installation for our crèche that is more historically accurate (more on that in a later blog post).

The figures themselves were crafted by some of the most distinguished artists of the day. The faces, known for their lively expressions and delicate features, were not molded but are one-of-a-kind sculptures, made from wood or terracotta. The bodies were usually constructed of hemp wrapped around a framework of iron wire, allowing the owner to vary the pose and posture of the figure. The heads and limbs were also generally made of painted wood or terracotta.

The crèche figures the Museum first displayed, in 2005, were on loan from Mrs. Loretta Howard Sturgis; in 2006, she kindly gifted them to the Museum. Her mother, Mrs. Loretta Hines Howard, gave the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York over two hundred Neapolitan crèche figures, which they also display each year during the holidays.

But why travel to New York when next year you can see Neapolitan crèche figures right here in Milwaukee? When you stop by, make sure to look for the little dog, the favorite figure of many visitors.

Catherine Sawinksi  headshot

Catherine Sawinski is the Assistant Curator of European Art. When not handling the day-to-day running of the European art department and the Museum’s Fine Arts Society, she researches the collection of Ancient and European artwork before 1900.

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