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Enthusiasts
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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One is struck by the variety of materials the artists of the world have used to depict The Nativity — potato clay retablo, by Nicario Jiménez Quispe, Peru. (The Collection of James & Emilia Govan; courtesy LUMA; photo © Crèchemania.com.)
Art of the Crèche is a sumptuous book. It will surprise even those familiar with the world of crèches, since it would otherwise be difficult to see, in one place, the variety of forms the Nativity scene can be made to assume. Here are reproduced, on a page size that is nearly 9.5” x 11”, large and clear photographs of specimens from the Govan collection, all of them carefully isolated from their backgrounds so that the items are seen against the white of the page, without visual competition. The styles range from the severe monotone carving-unstained, unpainted, and only minimally finished-of the Czech artist Jaroslav Frencl to the riotous painted colors of the crèche molded from clay in the form of an Arbol de la Vida (Tree of Life) by Juan Hernández Arzaluz of Mexico. The thirteen chapters outline the course of a long and satisfying collecting period, and give information about many of the craftsmen who created the individual crèches. Well over 100 works are shown, that total representing over seventy countries.

When first paging through this book, one is struck by the variety of forms, by the use of color, and especially by the application of accessory materials. Some of the figures are clothed in rich fabrics or in suede and leather-in one case, the mantle of Mary is of carefully woven straw. In many cases, these extra garments worn by the figures provide the chief interest in the crèche: beyond the small size of the individual pieces, we see superb examples of tailoring, complete with breathtaking details, that are as much a feat of craftsmanship as the sculpting of the figures. When the medium of the sculpted forms does not allow great detail, many of the artisans have added other objects to bring to the scene hints of greater realism. The Wise Men, for example, may be carrying small containers of real grain; shepherds sculpted from clay may be carrying crooks carved of wood; or the carved and painted figure of the Christ child may be adorned with a halo of cast brass, while lying on a bed of real straw, under which is a lavishly embroidered cloth.

The application of color is another topic that is worthy of notice. In many cases, the warm tones of the pieces carved of wood are considered sufficient as coloration, though some craftsmen have added different colored woods to give extra visual interest. When the medium is wood, the treatments can vary from the barely finished to minimal varnishing to heavy translucent coatings. Paint is likewise applied to wood and other materials in a manner that expresses a wide range of styles. In some cases, very light coats of wood-penetrating paint have been applied in just a few places to subtly emphasize the important figures, and give the whole an understated elegance and restraint. In other sets, water color paint, that seems to stain the wood but not to cover its grain or surface, is used to give color and detail throughout but, at the same time, muting the color through the flatness of the unfinished wood surface. Finally, other color such as heavy enamel and gilding can completely obscure the material from which the crèche is made. In these cases, most of the detail becomes a matter of paint rather than of sculptural relief. This method of finishing seems to relate the crèche, in my opinion, more to two-dimensional representations of the Nativity, but this does not lessen its charm when applied to free-standing figures.

Throughout the book, the reader will be struck with the variety of materials from which the crèches are made. Many are not obvious unless you pay close attention to the text. Quite a few are carved of wood, and in most sets where wood is the medium, it is the type and special quality of the wood that makes the crèche interesting. Along with the wooden carvings, you'll see an example of a set made entirely of bamboo, though made in such a way that it takes advantage of that wood's characteristics. Some of the crèches are made of sculpted clay, with other works in the related materials of terra cotta, red clay (of the kind we usually associate with flower pots), and ceramics.

Some of the less durable substances that were used include papier mâché, straw, light cardboard and paper, the ribs of the saguaro cactus, potato clay (a mixture used in Peru where the potato originated, composed of potato starch mixed with plaster) and a twine made of chaguar fiber (which the book describes as a kind of bromeliad). More durable crèches are shown having been made from brass, bronze, volcanic ash bonded with resin, and even powdered iron mixed with resin. All of these, it will strike the viewer, are used with great success despite the less-than-permanent nature of some.

If you look past the undeniable charm of the figures, you'll begin to notice a subtler aspect of this book: the chapters are titled and arranged in such a way that they highlight aspects of the crèches that the author feels worthy of comment. For example, in the chapter titled Heaven & Nature Abound, Author Govan makes the point that people are often surprised to discover that the only animals mentioned in the Gospel accounts are the flocks of the shepherds. “Animals abound in artists' renderings and retellings,” he continues, “on account of a key element of the story: the manger into which the newborn Christ was laid.” Thus, the traditions have yielded new elaborations-the ox, the ass, the doves in the stable's rafters, the little drummer boy-which, far from obscuring the story, serve to enhance it as more members of God's creation have come to join the adoration of the Child.

Each of the chapters is, then, an organization of a group of crèches that are presented in proximity to each other in a way that allows them to be enhanced by their common features. This is very thoughtful of the author, but it is also a clever way of directing our attention to see, using a persuasion of the gentlest possible method, the small things that might otherwise escape us. These crèches are, after all, not merely toys that celebrate the Nativity, but true icons-symbols to look at in order to look through to see the real Christ child. Thus, with sufficient attention and the author's assistance, one can have both the experience of the artistic creations by themselves, and an experience of God not through the work of the artisans, but beyond them to the source of their inspirations.

For the artistic breadth of the Govan Collection, alone, this book is worth owning. For the gentle humanity of its author that shines from every page, there is an even greater satisfaction in possessing it. It is a book that you will come to treasure even more the longer you study it.

Author James L. Govan and his sons, Michael and Stephen. have set up the Emilia Longobardo Govan Endowed Scholarship Fund in in her memory. "When possible," Jim says, "the scholarship aid, at Emilia's alma mater, St. Joseph's College, in Brooklyn, goes to needy students who are the first generation of their families to attend college. The scholarship fund is already partially assisting two students, and I have committed whatever I earn from the sale of the book to it."

—Alexis




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