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Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Creche on Display for Holiday Season at Metropolitan Museum
Detail of the Neapolitan Baroque crèche. Gift of Loretta Hines Howard, 1964.

NEW YORK, NY.- The Christmas tree and Neapolitan Baroque crèche at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, a long-established yuletide tradition in New York, will be on view for the holiday season from November 24, 2009, through January 6, 2010. The brightly lit, 20-foot blue spruce – with a collection of 18th-century Neapolitan angels and cherubs among its boughs and groups of realistic crèche figures flanking the Nativity scene at its base – will once again delight holiday visitors in the Museum’s Medieval Sculpture Hall. Set in front of the 18th-century Spanish choir screen from the Cathedral of Valladolid, with recorded Christmas music in the background and daily lighting ceremonies, the installation reflects the spirit of the holiday season.

The annual Christmas display is the result of the generosity, enthusiasm, and dedication of the late Loretta Hines Howard, who began collecting crèche figures in 1925 and soon after conceived the idea of combining the Roman Catholic custom of elaborate Nativity scenes with the tradition of decorated Christmas trees that had developed among the largely Protestant people of northern Europe. This unusual combination was first presented to the public in 1957, when the Metropolitan Museum initially exhibited Mrs. Howard’s collection. More than two hundred 18th-century Neapolitan crèche figures were given to the Museum by Loretta Hines Howard starting in 1964, and they have been displayed each holiday season for more than 40 years. Linn Howard, Mrs. Howard’s daughter, worked with her mother for many years on the annual installation. Since her mother’s death in 1982, she has continued to create new settings for the figures that she adds to the collection. In keeping with family tradition, Linn Howard’s daughter, Andrea Selby Rossi, now joins her mother in creating the display.

The towering tree, glowing with light, is adorned with cherubs and some 50 gracefully suspended angels. The landscape at the base displays the figures and scenery of the Neapolitan Christmas crib. This display mingles the three basic elements traditional in 18th-century Naples: the Nativity, with adoring shepherds and their flocks; the procession of the three Magi and their exotically dressed retinue of Asians and Africans; and, most distinctively, a crowd of colorful townspeople and peasants. The theatrical scene is enhanced by a charming assortment of animals – sheep, goats, horses, a camel, and an elephant – and by background pieces serving as the dramatic setting for the Nativity, including the ruins of a Roman temple, several quaint houses, and a typical Italian fountain with a lion’s-mask waterspout.

The origin of the popular Christmas custom of restaging the Nativity is traditionally credited to Saint Francis of Assisi. The employment of man-made figures to reenact the hallowed events soon developed and reached its height of complexity and artistic excellence in 18th-century Naples. There, local families vied to outdo each other in presenting elaborate and theatrical crèche displays, often assisted by professional stage directors. The finest sculptors of the period – including Giuseppe Sammartino and his pupils Salvatore di Franco, Giuseppe Gori, and Angelo Viva – were called on to model the terracotta heads and shoulders of the extraordinary crèche figures. The Howard collection includes numerous examples of works attributed to them as well as to other prominent artists. The Museum’s crèche figures, each a work of art, range from six to 20 inches in height. They have articulated bodies of tow and wire, heads and shoulders modeled in terracotta and polychromed to perfection. The luxurious and colorful costumes, many of which are original, were often sewn by women of the collecting families and enriched by jewels, embroideries, and elaborate accessories, including gilded censers, scimitars and daggers, and silver filigree baskets. The placement of the approximately 50 large angels on the Christmas tree and the composition of the crèche figures and landscape vary slightly from year to year as new figures are added.

Beginning December 1, dramatic lighting ceremonies will take place this year on: Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays at 4:30 p.m.; and Fridays and Saturdays at 4:30, 5:30, and 6:30 p.m. The Museum will be open on a special holiday Monday this year, December 28, and the lighting ceremony on that date will follow the weekday schedule.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art | The Christmas Tree | Andrea Selby Rossi |

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