Neapolitan Crèche Figures
It may be said that the most prestigious and desirable type of Nativity figures ever produced was the Neapolitan Crèche. It was the Italians who in the 12 th century realized for the first time a Nativity of actual people, and by 1283, commissioned by Pope Onofrio, first displayed figurines of the Holy Family during the Christmas season. Thereafter, the Crèche concept rapidly spread throughout Europe, especially Spain, Portugal, France and Poland.
In Naples particularly, during the second half of the 1400s, the Franciscans who first favored the diffusion of the Nativity scene brought it to new heights. Their works enriched the new Nativity scenes, which became more and more complex with scenes of daily life revolving around the manger.
The 18 th century was the golden age of Crèche art. Neapolitan royalty soon adopted this tradition for their personal enjoyment. Kings and aristocrats began commissioning leading artists to create miniature nativity figures for their own homes. These people demanded the finest details in the flexible sculptures including realistic glass eyes, precious gems and fine silk and brocade fabrics. Neapolitan figures have long been cherished for their exquisite detail and handwork. This includes, not only the sculpted busts, limbs and hand painted blown glass eyes, but also the incredible range of detail and quality of the attire, accessories and background features.
During the 18 th century interest grew to feature extravagant panoramas containing hundreds of figures. Art figures were displayed in miniature settings of city buildings or countryside vistas. They depicted celebratory scenes of gift-bearing people including merchants, slaves, animals, kings and wealthy patrons adorned in precious metals and gemstones. It is recorded that the King's own collection numbered over 6,000 figures.
Neapolitan figures have remained an aristocratic collectible for over three hundred years. Today, few artists in the region have the skills and years of learning to create such highly detailed figures. The creation of these figures and scenes involves the input of numerous artists and craftsmen. These include sculptors, wood carvers, lace makers, metal smiths, glass blowers, potters, and wax artists. Scenographic artists make one-of-a-kind cityscapes, landscapes and buildings often depicting ruined Roman architecture, symbolizing the triumph of Christianity over paganism. A tavern or shop or market may feature several figures shopping, eating, drinking and dancing. A city street may feature people traveling, children, animals, or possibly a lady of the court in an elaborately decorated 'sedan' carried by two servants. Theatrical or circus people with wild animals or people from the Orient, Africa or the Middle East are often depicted.