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A Monastery Nativity

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This marvelous 17th century sculpted relief panel of The Visit of the Magi, in Italian marble by an anonymous artist, is one of the treasures of the St. Bernard de Clairvaux Ancient Spanish Monastery, North Miami Beach.

It may be January 10, but the only evidence of winter here in South Beach are the Christmas decorations that still festoon the lamp posts. Gold stars and ribbons, and artificial garland—looking even more so in the sunshine—line Ocean Drive, the pulsating center of this international playground.

The temperature is a balmy 69 degrees and there's not a cloud in the sky as I sip cool lemonade and—what else?—blog on my portable Mac under the swaying palms.

I hear that back home in the Midwest another four inches of snow has fallen. Benjamin must have spent the last few hours clearing out his triple-door driveway, not to mention the long sidewalks of his corner lot. Good thing that his thoughtful wife, Krista (who gave me the wonderful Christmas Manger Set nativity) also gave Benjamin an insulated pair of overalls. Still, he must have had to warm his fingers for a long while holding onto a large cup of steaming coffee before he was able to post his latest Don't Be Afraid To Post A Comment entry. What a guy. Thanks, Benjamin, you're the best!

I'm in Florida on another shoot, which the beautiful weather allowed us to wrap in record time. And since the airline is asking $500 dollars to take me home early, what's a photographer to do? Stay in Miami, of course, save Benjamin some money (who also happens to be the C.E.O. of our company), and do some location scouting.

A Spanish monastery sprouts in a former nursery.
 

And so, early yesterday morning, I followed Highway A1A North, heading for a monastery that our Stylist, Lisa, had found on the Internet. "It has a cloister," she said, and my mind imagined another New York Metropolitan Museum Cloisters where perhaps I could shoot.

About half an hour later I was there, and rubbing my eyes: there's a 12th century Spanish Monastery, alright, in the middle of North Miami Beach. The story of The Cloisters of the Ancient Monastery and St. Bernard de Clairvaux (of the Episcopal Church) reads like a fairy tale. Originally built in Segovia, Spain, and named Monastery of Our Lady, Queen of the Angels, it was dismantled stone by stone in 1925 and brought to the United States by non other than William Randolph Hearst.

It's a miracle that the stones ever made it to Florida. Mr. Hearst, facing financial difficulties, had to sell the stones, and the crates remained in a warehouse for almost three decades. Until, after nineteen months and a cost of over one-and-a-half million dollars, everything was put together again as a tourist attraction.

Imagine what a gigantic puzzle that task must have been, with some of the stones weighing more than one-and-a-half tons.

Twenty-three men spent over three months opening all the crates, gathering seven tons of nails in the process. It took seven months before two of the cloister walls began to take shape amidst a former nursery which today surrounds the monastery with a sea of green: over 1,000 plants and trees thrive in the hot, humid climate of South Florida.

As you approach the gothic arch entrance (flanked by supporting buttresses and palm trees, and topped by a bell tower) your eyes begin to discern the cloister. Shafts of light are interspersed with slender, carved, columns, enclosing an inner, open courtyard.

In the middle of the sunlit cloister is a Roman granite well, dating from the second century. And the cool corridors that surround the cloister feature statues and relief plaques depicting, among other themes, King Alphonso VIII of Spain, under whose reign the monastery was erected.

A sliding door opens into the chapel that once was the Refectory, or monastery dining hall. In the dim light provided by two small stained-glass windows you stand still for a moment, allowing your eyes to get used to the semi-darkness. That's when the gardener steps into the chapel and flicks on a switch.

A fluorescent bulb floods with light a large plaque built high into the left wall of the chapel, and you realize that you're looking at a marvelous marble relief of The Nativity! (See full image above, and close-up, below.)

The Visit of the Magi Marble Relief


The Virgin presents the Child to a kneeling Magi in this view of The Visit of the Magi.



A tiny bell—lest it disturb their prayers?—summoned the monks to the table.
The Visit of the Magi plaque is framed by an intertwined leaf pattern, symbolizing, perhaps, The Tree of Life.

To the left, a four-post manger with a peak roof houses the ox and the ass (busy eating), and a sitting Joseph (contemplating).

Flanked by three hand-maidens who stand at the ready, the Mother, sitted in front of the manger, holds the Child as she presents him to an almost prostrate Magi.

His two companions stand, in short tunics, holding their gifts. Alas, one Magi is almost obliterated. (Perhaps when customs burned the hay that surrounded him in his crate, for fear of hoof-and-mouth disease?) But his right hand survives intact, pointing heavenward, to the Star of Bethlehem.

The Magi, as Kings of the East, have arrived on horses, and are surrounded by three groomsmen as well as other courtiers with their steeds. And above them, a woodsmen is busy cutting down a tree, while his dog is running after a rabbit that's hiding behind the trees at upper right.

On the hills, above the manger, a shepherd, with his dog asleep at his feet, plays his flute—an allegory, perhaps, of an unwary world? While a companion, his head resting on his hands, marvels at the unfolding miracle.

Above a depiction of wooly sheep there's an eight-pointed Star, and an angel, unfurling a banner proclaiming "Glory to God in the Highest."

I very much look forward to returning to The Cloisters of the Ancient Spanish Monastery: for my next shoot—and to admire the beautiful Visit of the Magi anew.


Crèchemania's majordomo resting on an ancient abbot's chair.
And speaking of photo shoots, I don't think I better mention the rest of our location-hunting in sunny Florida. Not while I think of Benjamin, snow shovel in hand.

Villa Vizcaya, the coral confection in the style of an Italianate palace, and the historic Deering Estate with its unusual Bromeliad Christmas tree will have to wait...

—Alexis

Do you have a photo of The Nativity? Are you planning a visit to a museum? Attending a church rich in imagery? Most churches and museums allow non-flash photography, so please share your photographs of The Nativity—paintings, icons, reliefs, sculptures, wood carvings—with us so we can share them with all of you on these pages.

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