Art Institute of Chicago hosts 200-piece Italian Nativity scene from 1700s

December 18, 2013 (CHICAGO)

As always, the Art Institute of Chicago is all decked out for the holidays on the outside, and now on the inside a new tradition has just begun. In a giant cabinet, we find the birth of Christ in Bethlehem presented in a way we have never seen before.

"It's a crèche. A Neapolitan crèche. The Italians call it a precepio and it comes from the 18th century for the celebration of Christmas," said Sylvain Bellenger, curator, medieval European sculpture.

Bellenger is responsible for acquiring the crèche from a collector in Naples, Italy. And you don't have to be an art critic to realize this is something special. It goes back to the middle 1700s and countless different artists contributed.

"It is not simple. To understand the Neapolitan crèche you have to forget everything you know about the simple crèche. This is not craftsmanship it art. It's fine art," said Bellenger.

The familiar cast of Christmas Eve characters is all here but they are here in abundance, and they're dressed in the finest of Italian silks made by the finest designers almost 300 years ago. And just look at the faces: sculpted in clay and then fired and painted.

"They are made by the most important sculptors of the time. The greatest artists who were in charge of marbles for churches and palaces are also the creators of the crèche," said Bellenger.

Over 200 figures in all and the people are about a foot high. And now I have to show you something up here. Now remember, this is a Nativity scene, but up there in the corner- a wild party going on in a tavern.

"Is it pagan? Is it, ah, sacred? It's probably both. But it's about the birth of Christ and how it's celebrated," said Bellenger.

The creche is extremely sensitive to light and can only be on exhibit for a few weeks. It closes on January 8, but it will be back for years to come.

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