This is the fifth year of Glencairn Museum’s annual exhibition of three-dimensional Nativity scenes. For many Christians the Nativity scene, illustrating the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem, is an important symbol of their personal religious faith. The scene of the Holy Family surrounded by animals, shepherds, and Wise Men is instantly recognized by people all over the world, and provides a compelling visual focus during the Christmas season.
There are more than two billion Christians, and in many parts of the world artists have adapted the Nativity scene to represent their own national, regional, and local cultures. This year Glencairn is exhibiting 34 sets from 15 different places: Bethlehem (West Bank), Ecuador, France, Germany, Haiti, India, Ireland, Italy, Laos, Nigeria, Philippines, Poland, Russia, Singapore, and the USA.
Traditionally a Nativity scene combines images from several different accounts of the story of the birth of Christ as told in the Bible. For instance, most Nativities include both the Magi (Wise Men) and the shepherds. However, the story of the Magi is told only in the Gospel of Matthew, and the story of the shepherds is told only in the Gospel of Luke. Most scenes include the Holy Family and the manger, but often there is not as much visual detail in the biblical accounts as the artist might like, so additional imagery is added. Sometimes the extra visual elements come from non-biblical texts produced by early Christian writers (such as the ox and donkey), but artisans often introduce innovations of their own. For example, in our exhibition the Nativity from Ecuador includes an angel playing a violin.
This year we are exchanging several dozen Nativity sets from the Glencairn collection with the famous collection of Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina. Mepkin Abbey is a community of Roman Catholic Trappist monks. They launched their first Crèche Festival in 2002, and since then their exhibition has grown steadily and received national media attention. One of the special Nativities we have on loan from the abbey is a set made in a French monastery by members of the Sisters of Bethlehem, a Roman Catholic religious order that originated in France at the beginning of the 1950s. The art of the Romanesque and Gothic period of medieval history provides inspiration for these figures, which are handmade using dolomite stone from the Pyrenees in southern France. The Sisters consider the creation of these figures to be “a work of prayer.”
Many of the artisans in our exhibition are self-taught, or are continuing a local village tradition passed down in their families through the generations. These Nativities could be described as “folk art.” But sometimes Nativities have been recognized as “fine art,” such as the 18th-century Neapolitan Presepio exhibited each year beneath the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. One of the Nativities in Glencairn’s permanent collection is a direct descendant of this Neapolitan tradition: a Presepio created by the Giuseppe and Marco Ferrigno workshop, a fourth-generation family business in Naples, Italy.
This year Glencairn is very fortunate to be unveiling an elaborate Nativity scene that was made in America, but inspired by the Italian Presepio tradition. Set in the midst of a busy Italian village, this Nativity was created over a period of two years by New York artists Karen Loccisano and R. Michael Palan—a husband-and-wife team. According to Michael, “We wanted to work on a large scale project together. We were drawn to the Angel Tree and the Neapolitan figures around the tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. We started learning about the characters, symbolism and traditions of the Neapolitan Presepio. Presepio means crib in Italian. It connects God with the common man by including the Holy Family and an entire 18th-century village of everyday people. The more we learned, the more excited we became about creating our own version.” (More information and a photo album about Karen and Michael's Presepio is here.)
Glencairn was the home of the Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn family for forty years. In the 1920s, while they were still living at Cairnwood, the couple commissioned a large, three-part Nativity made by craftsmen from Raymond’s Bryn Athyn Studios. These representations of the Nativity story were set up at Glencairn annually each year. Glencairn Museum has continued this tradition—the Pitcairn Nativity is a permanent feature of our annual Follow the Star exhibition. In the 1950s the Pitcairns commissioned a similar three-part Nativity for the White House in Washington, D.C. The Eisenhowers and the Pitcairns were friends, and the Nativity scenes were put on display annually in the East Room. This year we are privileged to have on loan from the Pitcairn family a six-piece Nativity commissioned by Raymond and Mildred in the late 1940s or early 1950s as a gift for their son, Lachlan, and daughter-in-law, Jean. The figures were hand carved in wood by Hanna Fischer-Binder of Perkasie, Pennsylvania. The Nativity was used by Lachlan and Jean in their family home at Christmastime for many years. Lachlan, who lived at Cairnwood and Glencairn while he was growing up, passed away earlier this year at the age of 91.
Ed Gyllenhaal, curator of Glencairn Museum since 1987, and his wife Kirsten are co-curators of Follow the Star: World Nativities. According to Ed, an annual exhibition of Nativity scenes is “a perfect fit” for Glencairn, a museum dedicated to religious art and history:
“At Glencairn we have excellent examples of Nativity art in our permanent collection, including paintings, stained glass and sculptures, some dating to the Middle Ages. For nearly 2,000 years the Nativity scene has been one of the most important subjects in Christian art. Today many families have their own three-dimensional Nativity scenes, which they bring out at Christmastime and place on the mantle or under the tree. So it made sense to us to begin collecting these, and to create an annual exhibition about Nativities around the world.”
“Some visitors to our exhibition feel a personal connection with Nativities because of their own faith backgrounds, while others enjoy them simply as craft or folk art. At Glencairn we believe that to fully appreciate a Nativity it’s necessary understand the historical and cultural context in which it was created. So we carefully research each Nativity, and write a label explaining the background of each set.”
According to Kirsten Gyllenhaal, an important part of the annual exhibition is the artistic settings that have been created for them:
“Over the past several years we’ve been lucky to work with Kathleen Glenn Pitcairn, who creates unique settings for nearly all of the Nativities in the exhibition. Kathleen, who lives in Bryn Athyn, is essentially a self-taught artist. She has been involved with set design for community theater since 1982, which has helped prepare her for work with Glencairn’s annual exhibition. In fact, she first received a feel for set painting from her father many years ago in Pittsburgh when he was in charge of an annual Christmas Tableaux.”
A recent addition to Glencairn’s permanent collection is a 60-year-old paper Moravian Star, made by the Herrnhut Star Company in Herrnhut, Germany. The Moravian Star, representing the Star of Bethlehem, is familiar around the world as a symbol of Christmas. It originated in the 1830s in a Moravian Church school in Niesky, Germany, most likely as a lesson in geometry. The Herrnhut Star Company has been producing Moravian Stars (also known as Herrnhut Stars) for over 160 years.
Most Moravian stars are designed to be illuminated from the inside. Glencairn’s example is composed of eighteen four-sided points and eight three-sided points. This star was originally given as a gift to Oskar Boehm by his sister Erna Pfueller (née Boehm). Oskar, his wife Anna, and their children immigrated from Germany’s Erzgebirge region to the United States in 1928. Erna remained in Germany, and following World War II the region where she lived became part of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) under Russian rule. In the 1950s Erna mailed the star from Germany to Oskar’s family as a gift. Oskar worked as a sexton for St. James Methodist Church on Tabor Road in Philadelphia. Perhaps because of the star’s large size, Oskar loaned it to St. James, where for many years it was displayed in the church at Christmastime. Last year the star was donated to Glencairn by Helmut and Elfriede Boehm of Rockledge, Pennsylvania.
On loan to Glencairn for the duration of the Follow the Star exhibition is an icon of the Nativity in the Byzantine style recently completed by iconographer Susan Kelly vonMedicus. Susan teaches icon writing at Villanova University, and in 2013 she was an artist-in-residence at the Burren College of Art on the west coast of Ireland. She creates icons in the traditional manner, using egg tempera and gold leaf on a gessoed panel. In the creation of sacred images, Susan works in an unbroken tradition developed during the earliest centuries of Christianity.
The iconography of the Nativity in Byzantine art has developed over many centuries. The three-fold mandala in the upper right corner of the icon represents the heavens opening and the Trinity descending. The cave of the Nativity represents the darkness into which Christ, the Light of the World, was born. The Christ Child is wrapped in swaddling clothes resembling burial clothes and the manger resembles a tomb; these elements prefigure the eventual death and resurrection of Jesus. The mountain represents the spiritual ascent and descent of the Holy Spirit. The rose border with buds represents the beginning of Mary's love for Christ, and the thorns her sorrows.
More information about Glencairn Museum’s FREE (donations welcome) Follow the Star exhibition is available here.
For more information about the "American Presepio" by Karen Loccisano and R. Michael Palan, see the December issue of Glencairn Museum News.
Information about our guided “Christmas in the Castle” tour is here.
Glencairn has created an online tour to provide visitors to our World Nativities exhibition with additional cultural and art historical information: “Do You See What I See: Imagery in Nativity Scenes.”
A complete archive of past issues of Glencairn Museum News is available online here.