There are quite a few characters in the crèche who are probably instantly recognizable to most people—Jesus, Mary, Saint Joseph, angels, shepherds, the Three Wise Men—but because the crèche involves scenes of daily life, many of the figures might seem a bit more anonymous. But you can actually learn quite a lot about the Christmas story and life in 18th-century Naples if you look closely. Here’s some insider information to help you decipher some clues and learn more about the figures in the crèche:
The character of Benito—located in the far right recesses of the crèche—is actually quite common in Neapolitan crèches of the period. This figure is always dressed in blue and is always sound asleep. He is completely oblivious of the star and the announcement of the angel, symbolizing all of those who do not listen to the news of the birth of Jesus.
The name of this woman on the left is La Georgiana, referencing the fact that she hails from Georgia, located in the Caucasus. She’s dressed in Turkish attire, with billowing pants, a tight embroidered vest, and men’s pointy-toed red boots, and symbolizes the exotic ethnicities that have come to Naples. This outfit would have been meticulously crafted on a miniature loom and is most likely made from silk from the royal silk factory in San Leucio.
The jewelry worn by the figures was not made by miniature artists, but rather the same jewelers who bedecked the Neapolitan elite. Around this woman’s neck is a necklace made of real coral. Greek mythology holds that coral came from Medusa’s blood, which fell into the Mediterranean when she was decapitated. Neapolitans believed that coral had protective powers against evil and bad luck. If you look closely, you can see many of the ladies in the crèche wearing coral necklaces and earrings.
To see these figures in person, you can visit the crèche in Gallery 209 through January 6.
Image Credit: Crèche (details), mid-18th century. Naples. Charles H. and Mary F. Worcester Collection, Ada Turnbull Hertle, Eloise W. Martin Legacy and Lacy Armour funds; restricted gifts of Mr. and Mrs. James N. Bay, Linda and Vincent Buonanno and Family, and Mrs. Robert O. Levitt.
The centerpiece of the museum’s current exhibition Temptation: The Demons of James Ensor is undoubtedly Ensor’s 1887 The Temptation of Saint Anthony. This drawing is nearly six feet tall and features the eponymous saint surrounded by a variety of temptations sent by the devil himself.
But as you look closely, the temptations depicted in the painting might not be those that you would expect to see being used to tantalize an ancient saint. In fact, Ensor’s Saint Anthony is seduced by vices that modern audiences would have recognized, including fast food and government corruption. Traditionally, portrayals of Saint Anthony—which are fairly common throughout art history—depict temptations related to lust, greed, and demons.
We took a look through our collection to see how artists from the 16th to the 20th centuries have explored this dark subject:
James Ensor. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1887. Regenstein Endowment and the Louise B. and Frank H. Woods Purchase Fund. © 2014 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York / SABAM, Brussels.
Henri Fantin-Latour. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, from the third album of L’Estampe originale, 1893. The Charles Deering Collection.
Lucas Cranach, the elder. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1506. Gift of Mr. Potter Palmer, II.
Brassaï (Gyula Halász). Tentation de Saint Antoine (Temptation of Saint Anthony), 1934/35, printed 1967. Restricted Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Gaylord Donnelley and Mr. and Mrs. Ralph J. Mills.
Giambattista Tiepolo. The Temptation of Saint Anthony, c. 1734. Helen Regenstein Collection.
Shortly after completing his training as a painter, a young artist named Baccio della Porta met the charismatic Dominican Friar Giralamo Savonarola and was compelled to give up his artistic career and join Savonarola’s monastic order. Several years later in 1504, the young artist—now known as Fra (or Friar) Bartolommeo—returned to painting with a new, intensified spirituality.
That religious devotion is apparent in Bartolommeo’s The Nativity, created in 1506/07. This delicate rendition of the nativity scene features the Virgin humbly kneeling and looking upon her child, while Joseph assumes a pose of wonderment, as if newly aware of his son’s divine nature. A trio of angels floats above, while another pair of angels stands behind the holy family and seems to reflect on both the birth of Christ and on the piece of wood that’s visible just above the child’s head, which perhaps alludes to his eventual death.
To learn more about paintings, etchings, and illuminated manuscripts from the museum’s collection that focus on the Christmas story, join us on December 4 in Fullerton Hall at 12:00p.m. for a richly illustrated lecture. Free with museum admission.
Image Credit: Fra Bartolommeo (Baccio della Porta). The Nativity, 1506/07. The Art Institute of Chicago, Ethel T. Scarborough Fund; L. L. and A. S. Coburn, Dr. and Mrs. William Gilligan, Mr. and Mrs. Lester King, John and Josephine Louis, Samuel A. Marx, Alexander McKay, Chester D. Tripp, and Murray Vale endowment funds; restricted gift of Marilynn Alsdorf, Anne Searle Bent, David and Celia Hilliard, Alexandra and John Nichols, Mrs. Harold T. Martin, Mrs. George B. Young in memory of her husband, and the Rhoades Foundation; gift of John Bross and members of the Old Masters Society in memory of Louise Smith Bross; through prior gift of the George F. Harding, Mr. and Mrs. W. W. Kimball, Mr. and Mrs. Martin A. Ryerson, and Charles H. and Mary F. S. Worcester collections.
One of the Art Institute’s most popular holiday attractions is our decorated Thorne Miniature Rooms. Each year, a selection of rooms (12 this year!) are bedecked in tiny, period-appropriate holiday decorations.
But similar to your decorations at home, the carefully considered décor doesn’t just magically appear. Each year, the trees are meticulously trimmed by Thorne Rooms caretaker Lindsay Mican Morgan, who spends the days leading up to the holiday season installing the tiny pieces.
In these images, you can see her installing the English Drawing Room of the Victorian Period. This room dates from the mid 1800s, when many of the traditions we associate with Christmas now were just gaining popularity. Queen Victoria, who was married to the German Prince Albert, adopted the German tradition of Christmas trees and when a picture of the royal family around the tree was posted in the newspaper, Christmas trees became very trendy.
There are also a number of toys under the tree, which would have been a relatively new phenomenon. In the past, children had been largely left out of holiday festivities, which included balls and plays. However, with the rise of wealth in this age, children were increasingly doted upon and given gifts like the dolls and train that you see here.
The decorated Thorne Miniature Rooms were unveiled last week and will be up for your viewing pleasure through January 6.
You may be surprised to discover that one of Walker Evans’s most iconic images (Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife, pictured above) was rejected by the first publisher it was submitted to. In fact, in 1936 Fortune magazine sent James Agee (as the writer) and Evans (as the photographer) to Hale County, Alabama to document the effects of the Great Depression on tenant farmers. They spent time with three poor families, including the Burroughs family. Evans took this photo of Allie Mae Burroughs during his stay.
Ultimately, Fortune passed on the article and accompanying photos due to length, but Agee later published an adapted version of his writings—with Evans’ photographs—as Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1941. The straightforward Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife quickly became the most famous image from the book, showcasing the subject’s quiet dignity mixed with an expression that can be alternately read as shy, bored, or annoyed.
Today marks what would have been Walker Evans’s 111th birthday. Click here to see more of Evans’ images in the Art Institute’s collection.
Image Credit: Walker Evans. Alabama Cotton Tenant Farmer’s Wife, 1936. Restricted Gift of Mrs. James Ward Thorne.