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The Christmas Crèche—Treasure of Faith, Art, & Theater
By Matthew Powell, O.P.

Father Matthew Powell's lavish book will not gather dust on your coffee table. (Pauline Books & Media.)

Sicilian peasants from the workshop of Vaccaro-Buongiovanni.
The Christmas Crèche: Treasure of Faith, Art, and Theater by Matthew Powell, O.P.; Pauline Books and Media; 160 pages; hardbound; $39.95.

"I was seven or eight years old when, with my mother, I bought my first Christmas crèche," says Father Matthew Powell, author of The Christmas Creche—Treasure of Faith, Art, & Theater.

"Inexpensive plaster figures and a cardboard stable, at Woolworth's in Springfield, Ohio. Even at that age I knew that the little statues were nt toys and that they were more than Christmas decorations. Somehow I perceived that those brightly painted shepherds and kings were sacred."

The Christmas Crèche: Treasure of Faith, Art, and Theater (Pauline Books & Media, Boston) is that rare combination of a beautiful book that you'll love to read -- not just admire on your coffee table.

The book's large format and quality paper make the illustrations spring from the page. Between the covers of The Christmas Crèche: Treasure of Faith, Art, and Theater you'll find 159 pages you'll find with Nativity masterpieces: it's all here -- from the luminous two-page spread of The Adoration of the Magi by Gentile da Fabriano to the mystical The Adoration of the Shepherds by Bartolo di Fredi.

Could anyone else -- save perhaps England's inimitable Sister Wendy -- be a better guide than Father Powell in this wondrous journey through centuries of crèche history, lore, tradition, and craftsmanship? With chapters titled, "The Celebration of Christmas," and Saint Francis and Devotion to the Infant Jesus," Father Powell details the roots of The Greatest Story Ever Told, and its "special observance" by St. Francis "on Christmas Eve, 1223, in Greccio, a village about midway between Rome and Assisi. the word "crèche" is probably a French derivative of Greccio (pronounced Grecho)."

Although, Father Powell says, "It is impossible to credit the Christmas crèche to any one person or event," was inevitable that the events of the Nativity would eventually be expressed with individual, movable, three-dimensional figures in miniature. In the Christmas crèche, religion, art and theater joined together."

Father Powell, a professor of theater, in a chapter titled "The Influence of Medieval Religious Drama on the Crèche" writes: "It was not long before the celebration of the Nativity would also include drama. The early Nativity drama, called Officium Pastorum -- Office of the Shepherds -- ...took place along with Matins on Christmas morning or as an Introit (entrance hymn) for Midnight Mass... The Nativity play had been born!"

"The Development of the Crèche: Fourteenth Century to the Present" is a panorama of lavish illustration and beguiling commentary. The teaming Perrone crèche; the "opulent" 18th-century Ricciardi crèche; and the elaborate Cuciniello crèche from the Museum di San Martino in Naples are only three of the beautiful expressions of the Nativity through the hands of gifted artisans.

Father Powell takes us on a tour of modern-day crèche creation in "The Christmas Crèche today." We get to visit the studio of Master Sculptor Elio Simonetti of the famed house of Fontanini; Nativity vendors in the Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples; and presents two zampognari "dressed as shepherds from the Abruzzi," who "play their bagpipes for donations during the Christmas season in Rome."

"The making of Nativity figures and stables has become an almost world-wide phenomenon," writes Father Powell. And gold-leafed crèches from Italy; potato-paste Nativity figures from Peru; earthenware crèches from the Southwest; ceramic crèches from Ecuador; polychromed wooden crèches from Guatemala; painted crèches from India; corn-husk crèches from the Czech Republic; wintery crèches from Quebec; stone, Celtic-inspired crèches from Ireland; thorn-wood crèches from Nigeria; wood-and-dried-banana-leaves crèches from Kenya; Inuit-carved crèches from Canada; ebony crèches from Tanzania; enameled wood crèches from Sri Lanka; wooden crèches from China testify to the veracity of his words.

"The crèche is more popular today tan at any other time in its history," writes Father Powell. "Christians treasure it as a visual reminder of important elements of their faith. It is frequently valued for its beauty as an object of art. It can also be a wonderful memento of cultural or ethnic heritage."

You'll treasure this book just as much as the author treasured his very first Woolworth's Nativity.

© 2021

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