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Neapolitan Praesepio—St. John Cantius Church, Chicago

Rating: 8 votes, 4.88 average.
A stunning, museum-quality Praesepio, one of the sacred art treasures of St. John Cantius, in Chicago…

The Praesepio video, framed by decorative elements of the altar of Our Lady of Chestochowa, is accompanied by St. John Cantius choir. (Be sure your volume's on, so you can also enjoy the St. John Cantius choir.)
St. John Cantius museum includes a large-size manuscript of Gregorian music—Brother Nathan Caswell, S.J.C., fills the museum with melodic chant.
If you're using a slow connection, please allow all the images to draw on your page first. Then playing of the video will be much smoother.

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Brother Nathan Caswell, S.J.C., who's been my guide at St. John Cantius, in Chicago—see [B]The Marian Altar of Wit Stwosz Replica—is about to show me the Praesepio installation in the church museum. He goes through a door at the left of the entrance, begins to climb the steps to the second level, and I follow, lugging my camera case.

At the sight of a large crucifix that hangs at the top of the stairs I instinctively make the sign of the cross. The museum room has wooden beams and is lit with low-voltage lighting which focuses a light beams on the displays. They gleam, and I marvel at the enameled icons, a copper candelabra studded with polychrome porcelain flowers, gleaming monstrances surrounded by a crown of thorns or sunburst rays, richly-embroidered vestments, processional candle holders, and sacred statues.

But I'm drawn towards the wood-and-glass case that almost touches the ceiling, and come face-to-face with one of St. John Cantius' many sacred treasures: the Praesepio, or Nativity Scene.

Perhaps here might a good place to share with you my quest to see, in person, the renowned Metropolitan Museum's Praesepio, The Nativity re-enacted by ornate figures that encircle the Baroque base of the Angel Tree studded with the Adoration of Angels.

The Angel Tree stands in the Met's Medieval hall, in front of a beautiful choir screen, and in the presence of Christ Pantocrator [He Who Holds All]. The Pantocrator mosaic is a copy of the priceless one in Hagia Sophia, the Church of the Holy Wisdom in Constantinople, today's Istanbul.

A halo of golden beams crowns the Newborn Child. (The Praesepio, St. John Cantius, Chicago.)
I never would I have imagined, even after repeat visits to New York City, that I would get to visit Hagia Sophia before I got to see the Met's Angel Tree! (See Chora Monastery Museum Nativity, Istanbul.)

That's because the Met Praesepio is only displayed during Christmas. As luck would have it, when I was there right before Christmas last year, the Museum staff was setting up the Praesepio, and its Baroque base and the Angel Tree were surrounded by cardboard boxes.

But I did get a glimpse of the distinctive manger's columns, said to be inspired by those of the Temple of Castor and Pollux in the Roman Forum. I first saw them on the cover of the pop-up book The Nativity (Delacorte Press), paper engineering by James Roger Dias and watercolors of the Met's 18th century Neapolitan Christmas Crèche by Borje Svensson. Separated by the Praesepio's Corinthian columns, four scenes create an ornate Nativity panorama. In the third scene unfolds The Nativity.

"I never cease to look at the manger and think about the Incarnation and how, for me, the spiritual world and the physical world come together," says Father Matthew Powell, O.P., priest, college teacher, author of The Christmas Crèche, Treasure of Faith, Art & Theater.

"We've always had paintings and icons, but, we say that traditionally Saint Francis of Assisi popularized the nativity. But before Saint Francis set up his nativity scene at Greccio, he asked the Pope's permission.

"He did this because religious dramas had been getting out of hand. They had become spectaculars, had overshadowed the liturgy. It's clear St. Francis knew of the Pope's disapproval of religious drama, and sought his permission. But what St. Francis really did was more in line with the religious drama: he was using live figures, although whether even a live baby isn't really clear.

"In the Middle Ages, you had in the West the development of religious statues. But this was a fairly late development: if you look pre-1000 A.D., you mainly have bas-reliefs—a three-quarter relief nativity scene, for example—you don't have fully-sculpted statues. The first individual crèche statues—dating from about 1287, which is almost 60 years after St. Francis—are found at Santa Maria Majore, in Rome."

I remember how excited I was to see the oldest crèche in the world, the marble group of figures attributed to the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio, and dated around 1289. And right here, in Chicago, in front of my eyes is this exquisite installation of 18th century Neapolitan devotional art.

Is this mere terra cotta?—the exquisitely serene face of the Virgin Mary, the Praesepio, St. John Cantius, Chicago.
There may be a thick glass panel between me and the Praesepio, but none of the beauty of the figures is diminished by the occasional glare on the glass caused by the overhead bright lights. A look at the Madonna—her serene face is crowned by a copper halo—(see image at left) gives you an idea of the exquisite art of the Neapolitan artists and artisans who created the St. John Cantius Praesepio.

Or take a look at the figure of the Patrician Lady (below, left), whose long locks are crowned by a diadem and covered by a lacy veil. Does this look like molded clay to you?

Multiply this beauty times 40, add to the superb figures and their splendid costumes the angels, putti, sheep, and other animals, and you begin to comprehend what incomparable sight lies before me.

"It's 250 years old," says Br. Nathan, "and it came to us from Rome."

"One day, about three years ago, while the Brothers were chanting vespers, someone came in—and perhaps realizing the monetary value—stole our twenty of our Presepio figures. All of the figures. It was in a different case, so they unscrewed the panels, and took everything.

"About a year later, on the Feast of Our Lady, a box showed up on our front porch. For a couple of days, everyone thought it was someone else's, and when Father Phillips opened it, all of these figures were there—mailed back anonymously.

"One of the Brothers built this cabinet, and we had two artists place the diorama back together, who were able to restore it to this condition.

"The wonderful thing about sacred art is the spiritual mixing with the material. It's amazing; so great: a million details, and they all eventually lead you back to Christ. You can be distracted for hours, thinking about the rich, the poor, the shepherds, the Wise Men… The thief! Everything, and it is all centered around Christ…"

Because, as Father Powell says, "Everyone is welcome at the Manger."

A turbaned, richly clad, Magi, the Praesepio, St. John Cantius, Chicago.
Saint John Cantius Praesepio

This breathtaking re-creation of The Nativity unfolds in three tableaus set in a rustic landscape.

The countryside: On a hillside at left—made of kork, but who can tell?— shepherds in folk costumes approach The Nativity. At upper left, a peasant's cottage—complete with a hay loft—is constructed of plaited sticks and pieces of wood, lit in ember, and filled to the rafters with cheese and sausages hanging from every protruding twig.

A woman in embrodiered bodice and skirt sits, motioning to a man who's standing nearby. There's a wicker basket full of fruit and three braying sheep in front of him. A third sheep is climbing a crag, seemingly on its way to joining the flock.

At left, a shepherd stands on a wall while his little dog, tail in the air, runs along side. And just below him, in another make-shift twig-and-red-tile overhang tucked in a crag, a shepherd stands, in thick boots and wooly overcoat.

And, at the very front left, a cow moos, and a young man in fancy breeches and waistcoat listens as bagpiper, in a long rain jacket, plays the bagpipes. The music also seems to have caught the attention of three resting sheep, while a fourth is about to climb the rocky hillside.

Next to the sheep, an old woman in an orange velvet skirt and red necklace sits holding a basket of grapes, while a young woman in blue dress, green apron, and mauve waistcoat approaches, a tiny egg basket slung on her right arm.

The Neapolitan village: At the right, under a starry sky, a three-story stucco house with red-tile roof and outdoor kitchen provides the backdrop. for a hubbub of activity. On the veranda that is supported by an arch, under a leafy pergola an old woman is spinning, a rooster is crowing, flapping his wings, two men, in bright silks, and a child are walking down the stairs.

On the walls hang chesses and copper pans, their silvered insides mirroring the surroundings. Someone's walking through an open door, and, through a large window, just past a red curtain, a painted scene of this Praesepio is painted on a wall.

At the front, a table is full of china, a covered dish, a porcelain, copper and earthenware jug, and bread. To the right, two maids in fancy dress—just look at the green ribbons festooning the dress of the one in the yellow bodice—approach with basket full of potatoes and fruit.

To their right and behind them are villagers in their Sunday best. To the left, an old woman is sitted in front of a breadsmith, and behind the table a woman in a red wrap-around shawl is talking to a lady in a stunning, gold-embroidered flowery costume, a lacy veil over her head.

There's so much to see in this wonderful Praesepio, and I really want a closer look, but when I do, I end up bumping my head on the showcase glass front.

Everyone is welcome at the manger, rich and poor—a patrician lady, the Praesepio, St. John Cantius, Chicago.
Time to look through my telephoto lens, which really makes you appreciate the artistic genius of the Neapolitan artists and artisans who created this work of sacred art. The Patrician Lady (image above, left) is a case in point. Look at the perfectly formed features—keeping in mind that this is a miniature!—the milky-white skin tones, the rosy cheeks, the cherry lips, the cascading hair, the gold diadem, the lacy dress, and veil.

This attention to detail is everywhere present. The lowliest sheep and the most high King of the East have been created with great artistry and care. Terracotta, wood, hemp, wire, and cloth are brought together to create a powerful composition.

The Nativity: In the central tableau of the Praesepio, adoring angels hover above, joined by winged putti and cherubs. In front of the manger, denoted by two columns, shepherds and villagers point at the miracle unfolding before them.

The three Wise Men approach from the right, puffy turbans with gold crown and gold embroidered costumes denoting their kingly status.

They're attended by a bevy of footmen, adorned in like fashion: a particularly dandy young page, handsome face beautifully carved of ebony, holds glasses of refreshments on a silver tray.

And in the very center of the Praesepio, the Newborn Child lies on a blanket of lace, a halo sunburst framing His head.

A young Magi attendant holding his king's heavy headdress looks on, as is Joseph, whose crook has sprouted into golden flowers.

The Virgin Mary, arms outstretched as if in at any moment she will embrace the Child, is clad in a rose silk dress trimmed in lace, a serene presence among the multitude.

It takes me a while to photograph the Praesepio, trying my best to avoid unsightly flares on the glass by the lights. Br. Nathan patiently waits me for me, and, standing in front of a tall lectern that supports a large book of Gregorian music fills the room with melodic age-old chant.

When in Chicago, you won't want to miss seeing the St. John Cantius Praesepio: 825 N. Carpenter St., Chicago, Illinois 60642-5499; Rectory: 312-243-7373. Until then, you'll enjoy browsing the St. John Cantius website.

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St. John Cantius' Praesepio is a stunning crèche in a large display case that almost reaches the ceiling of the church museum.

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