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James L. Govan
James Govan and his late wife, Emilia, created a collection with love, a shared faith, and a shared love of art. In Chicago, at the Loyola Museum of Art (LUMA), we spoke about his book and his collection.
Art of the Crèche: Nativities from Around the World
By James L. Govan (Merrell, hardcover, 208 pages)

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Believed to be the oldest crèche in the world, this marble group of figures (attributed to the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio, and dated around 1289) is found in the Basilica Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome. (Photo © 2007

"This delightful book explores the worldwide tradition of the nativity scene… and its enduring appeal as an expression of faith and universal humanity, and as a richly diverse art form." (Merrell; cover by Cade Martin Photography.)
It has been a tradition mainly of Occidental Christianity, beginning with the scene of the Nativity ordered to be enacted by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223 AD, to venerate the Incarnation of Jesus of Nazareth with small carved or sculpted crèches, small scenes depicting the famous scene in the manger described in the Gospels of Mathew and Luke, peopled with the infant Christ child, his mother and stepfather, the shepherds, the wise men of the Magi, and above all, the animals who gave their bodily warmth and serene domestic presence to the miraculous birth. St. Bonaventure, in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi, writes of the Saint's impulse to commemorate the holy event with a tableau:

It happened in the third year before his death, that in order to excite the inhabitants of Grecio to commemorate the nativity of the Infant Jesus with great devotion, St. Francis determined to keep it with all possible solemnity; and lest he should be accused of lightness or novelty, he asked and obtained the permission of the sovereign Pontiff. Then he prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His Name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.

The French word crèche translates literally into English as crib. Over the centuries since St. Francis, the word — or its Italian equivalent presepio — has come to characterize a more-or-less miniature scene of the nativity intended to grace churches and, later, homes during the Season of Advent. Most scholars believe that the oldest crèche in Italy is the marble group of figures attributed to the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio, and dated around 1289 (see photo, top of page).

This set is incomplete, but its elegant remnants can still be seen in the lower level of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, a church that also houses a relic of the Nativity in Bethlehem, a piece of the Holy Crib, brought to that church in the Seventh Century. From these beginnings as a devotional tableau of the gentlest and most inspiring of the great Medieval saints, and as altar adornments of the Medieval Catholic Church, the practice of constructing crèches spread throughout Europe from the 13th century on-and somewhat later, to North and South America, Africa, Asia, and Australia-the craftsmen of each country tending toward exuberant local styles that we would now define as indigenous.

Over the centuries of the tradition of the crèche, the devotion of uncounted craftsmen and artists has produced lively and varied versions of the scene of the Nativity. Even when the figures are of a character that is obviously not a portrayal of humble Jewish people of twenty centuries ago, it is impossible to escape the charm of the miniatures, as well as the obvious devotion that has gone into their make-up-nor is it possible to ignore, despite the change of setting and racial characteristics, the quality of artistic and religious truth that each provides. Thus, each glimpse of a crèche brings its own inspiration and visual delight, and from this can come a hunger to see how different cultures witness and interpret the same truths: so can be born a desire to collect these small symbols of a miraculous event.

Beginning with the acquisition of a small Italian crèche scene in 1962, Author James L. Govan and his late wife Emilia discovered the charm of collecting, and the eventual amassing of a variety of crèches from all over the world. Over the course of their years together, the Govans put together a collection of more than 260 sets, nearly thirty of which they had commissioned from artists all over the world. At the same time, as James Govan writes, “I became more committed to documenting them, learning as much as possible about how they were made and the individuals who made them.” The same impulse later gave impetus to the idea of writing a book that would display the Govan collection, and furnish information on the crèche tradition. Sadly, the death in 2000 of Emilia Govan cut short the couples' joint investigation of this beloved art form, but James' resolve to continue, as a tribute to the richness of his life with his late wife, eventually brought into being Art of the Crèche: Nativities from Around the World, published in October of 2007 by Merrell of London and New York, and now available through most commercial sources.

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