The tradition of nativity scenes began with Saint Francis of Assisi who staged the first nativity in 1223 with people and live ox and lamb. Overtime this evolved to life-sized wooden figures placed in front of churches and then, into scenes made of small expressive terracotta figurines.
During the 1700s, crèche figures were an obsession in Naples. Wealthy families competed to create the most impressive ones. When Don Carlos of Bourbon (the future Charles III of Spain) ruled Naples and Sicily from 1734-1769, he reputedly owned a crèche with nearly 6,000 figures. Neapolitan crèches were often given as presents to royalty all over Europe so such figurines can appear on the antique market even today.
The 18th century crèche of the Metropolitan Museum of Art is the finest in the US and features over 200 figurines made by the Neapolitan artisan Giuseppe Sammartino and his pupils. All the figurines have finely painted terracotta heads; legs, arms, and wings carved from wood; and bodies of hemp and wire. No two are alike. The graceful angels decorating the tree all have different faces and clothing and carry different objects. The Nativity scene surrounding the majestic twenty-foot blue spruce features the three main elements characteristic of 18th-century Naples: adoring shepherds and their flocks, the Three Kings in procession, and colorful peasants and townspeople engaged in quotidian tasks. In the background are dozens of animals and architectural pieces including quaint houses, market stalls, Roman ruins, and even a typical Italian fountain.
The Neapolitan Crèche and Baroque Angel Tree located in the Met’s Medieval Courtyard are on display through the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th (the 12th day of Christmas) marking the arrival of the Three Wise Man bringing their finest gifts for the new born King.
Angels were created long ago, before the earth existed. When God created the earth, the angels began singing in applause. —Job 38:4-7.
What is the purpose of angels and the extent of their powers? Angels serve as messengers of God (the word angel is derived from the Greek angelos meaning messenger). Angels can speak, sing, play musical instruments and dance but they are not omnipresent, omniscient or omnipotent and are not meant to be worshiped by us mortals.
Do angels have names and free will? The Bible only names the four Archangels: Michael, Gabriel, Raphael and Uriel. Other angels have names too, but they chose not to reveal them; all angels have the freedom to choose between right and wrong . . . those who chose wrong joined Lucifer who, in his rebellion, became the first fallen angel.
Do angels have feelings? Angels experience emotions such as joy and longing but do not marry; in western art they are depicted as ageless and having a gender (baby angels — putti — are a bit different and we will discover more about them around St. Valentine’s Day).
How many angels are there? The Bible does not state an exact number, but it attests to their vast number. In a vision the apostle John caught a glimpse of “hundreds of millions of angels.”
May this holiday season bring you peace, good tidings and great joy.
Buon Natale, Felice Hanukkah e Felice Anno Nuovo!!!