Glencairn Museum News | Number 11, 2016
According to Samuel Sharp, a British surgeon who visited Naples in 1766, a Presepio is “a group of little figures, or puppets” depicting the events surrounding the birth of Jesus Christ. It was set up “in many of their churches and many of their private houses.” In Sharp’s opinion, “what renders a Presepio really an object for a man of taste, is the artful disposition of the figures, amidst a scenery of perspective, most wonderfully deceitful to the eye.” While Presepi were usually associated with churches and the aristocracy, Sharp observed that “all the poor people, if they are not already provided with a Presepio, purchase a cheap trumpery one at this season, which, with care and locking them up the remainder of the year, will last them their lives.” (Letter XXXV, Naples, March, 1766)
A Presepio presents the Nativity scene within the setting of daily life in 18th-century Naples, a bustling port city. This artistic tradition has been called "the translation of the Bible into Neapolitan dialect.” The figures are clothed in period costumes typical of the aristocracy, peasants and visiting foreigners. The birth of Jesus is depicted as taking place amid crumbling Roman ruins, signifying the end of paganism and the dawn of Christianity.
In the Presepio on exhibit at Glencairn, the Nativity of the Christ Child, which takes place below a host of angels descending from heaven, stands in stark contrast to the mundane life of the inn or tavern. Life at the inn goes on as usual, but the attention of some of the customers has been drawn in the direction of the miraculous event. No figures have been placed in the way of the Holy Family, so the eyes of the viewer move naturally up the steps with the townspeople toward the Nativity.
Each Presepio is a theatrical event, and the scenes are reinterpreted annually by the individual who plans the installation. This year Bryn Athyn artist Kathleen Glenn Pitcairn, who has a background in stage set design, has assumed the role of “theater director.” According to Kathleen, “I approached the Presepio as if it were a stage.” She has also created artistic settings for most of the other Nativities in Glencairn’s World Nativities exhibition.
Each figure, and each grouping of figures, tells a different story. It’s hard for Kathleen to pick a favorite, “because all of them speak to me.” However, she especially enjoys figures that express movement, and the individuality of their facial expressions. “Some of the faces of the characters were made to show emotion; you feel there’s life in them. One shepherd is coming around the corner to see the Christ Child for the first time, and he has a look of awe."
The tradition of Presepio-making continues in Italy today; numerous shops dedicated to the craft are located on the Via San Gregorio Armeno in Naples—also known as “Presepio Street.” The Presepio in Glencairn’s World Nativities exhibition is on loan from the Samuel S. Fleisher Art Memorial in South Philadelphia. The figures and structures were donated to the Fleisher in memory of the late Elizabeth Anne Evans by her sisters, Marcia Evans and Suzanne Hoyle-Rhodes. The mission of the Fleisher is to make art accessible to everyone, regardless of economic means, background, or artistic experience. (fleisher.org)
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