Back in early 2018, Tanya Paul, Isabel and Alfred Bader Curator of European Art, proposed that the Museum again install its Nativity scene, or crèche, in the galleries for the holidays. The work, a visitor favorite, hadn’t been on view since 2013, because the setting for the Holy Family and other figures was worn and needed repair—such stage sets are often fragile constructions that require replacing. The Museum’s setting needed either to be restored or refabricated. The decision was made to make a new stage set, and a group of us, from the Conservation department and the preparatory staff, started to explore the possibilities.
The team first set to work on a storyboard. A storyboard, otherwise known as a pinup or project wall, is an array of images, representations, and sticky notes loosely collaged on a wall or board. A variation of this is often used in crime procedural shows, and departments throughout the Museum frequently employ storyboards to help organize large, complex projects. A storyboard is an effective tool for assembling information, generating ideas, and consolidating disparate parts. It encourages collaborative interplay and can often reveal unexpected possibilities.
Many of us involved in this project were only vaguely familiar with the long, involved history of the crèche, or recreating the Nativity. (See Catherine Sawinski’s post “Neapolitan Crèche” for an introduction to this history.) Terri White, the Museum’s associate conservator, on the other hand, knows a lot about crèche traditions and assisted in staging past installations. She has conserved many of the Museum’s figures and is familiar with their compositional makeup—important information to have. This information was the first on the storyboard—and sparked our enthusiasm and ideas.
This was early spring of 2018. The crèche is traditionally installed toward the beginning of the holiday season, so we had plenty of time to explore our ideas for possible settings. In the basement near our workshop, we have what we call a “proving wall,” where the art preparators, mount maker, and conservation team test materials such as hanging hardware and paint coverage. It’s a convenient place to try out ideas, and the perfect spot for our crèche storyboard. The wall is along a hallway commonly used by staff, allowing for many eyes—an excellent spot for casual, collaborative interaction.
For our storyboard, we needed to look at the beginning. Saint Francis of Assisi is said to have originated, in the thirteenth century, after returning to Italy from the Holy Land, live pantomimes of the story of Christ. He intended these live outdoor reenactments to focus attention on the birth of Christ as opposed to more materialistic ways of celebrating the holiday.
Imagining these performances taking place in the rugged hillsides of northern Italy immediately brought to many of our minds one of the most remarkable depictions of Saint Francis, Giovanni Bellini’s Saint Francis in the Desert (also known as The Ecstasy of Saint Francis), from about 1476, currently at The Frick Collection, in New York.
In this painting, the Saint Francis, from high up in the rugged hills of Tuscany, emerges barefoot from his grotto to meet the bright, clear morning sun. While this image with its rocky terrain became the center point within the storyboard, other paintings from the Museum’s own collection became equally as informative, specifically Joseph Wright of Derby’s Grotto, from about 1790. The Roman ruins depicted represented possible archways, and were noted on the storyboard as rough wood cutouts, with an assortment of materials that could resemble crumbling stonework.
Three late seventeenth-century Italian paintings that would be adjacent to the crèche installation were also drawn upon for inspiration: Castiglione’s Noah and the Animals Entering the Ark and Corrado Giaquinto’s The Rape of Europa and The Triumph of Galatea. Their compositions and color palettes informed color swatches and simple line drawings that were tacked on the storyboard.
At this point in the project’s development, the storyboard was nearly overloaded with information, and maybe to some, a frightening mess ready for the trash bin (we even considered the possibility that housekeeping might haul it away). The seeming chaos of the creative process is necessary; at this stage, order is overrated. We had many of the important parts in place, but much still needed to be resolved before actual fabrication could begin.
The one idea that turned the project toward completion was when David Russick, exhibition designer, suggested installing the crèche in the middle of the gallery instead of against a wall. Suddenly the narrative of the Holy Family became activated within a space that moved in and around them! As the landscape became less stagelike and more naturalistic, it was easy to imagine Saint Francis and the early reenactments on the hills of Tuscany. This 360-degree view not only created a more dynamic setting but, from a practical standpoint, added more surface area to comfortably stage all the figures. Before this change, one of the biggest challenges was how to present a crowded tableau of over twenty figures, including the Holy Family, three flying angels, putti, a shepherd and a host of barnyard animals (some without bodies, just heads!), and one yappy dog.
Ready to begin building, we needed to ensure that the materials we planned to use were safe for enclosing within a case with the art objects. We assembled the various modeling materials onto the storyboard and assessed their archival properties: Were they inert? Over time, would they interact and compromise the figurines and delicate fabrics? Many of the naturally occurring materials—rocks, tree limbs, boxwood—were incorporated into the setting after they were sealed, painted, and allowed to cure.
Call it what you may, ideation (ick), creative (ho-hum), brainstorm (watch out!), or even “breaking things” (could be fun), there are many different ways to move an idea forward. Sometimes you just have to make the idea visible—to tack it, tape it, or nail it up—and see what sticks on your storyboard.
Rick Knight is the Framer and Mount Maker at the Museum. He helps ensure that works are safe and shown at their best, building, for example, structures that unobtrusively (so you don’t notice them!) support the objects for display.