November 28, 1998 - January 3, 1999
Medieval Sculpture Hall

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. The brightly lit, twenty-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, the installation reflects the spirit of the holiday season. There will be a spectacular lighting ceremony every Friday and Saturday evening at 7:00 p.m.

The installation is made possible by The Loretta Hines Howard Trust.

More About the Installation

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 first was 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 over 30 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 continues to create new settings for the figures that she adds to the collection. In keeping with family tradition, Linn Howard's daughter, artist Andrea Selby, joins her mother each year in creating the display.

The Museum's towering tree, glowing with light, is adorned with cherubs and some fifty large and 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 Custom of the Crèche

The origin of the popular Christmas custom of restaging the Nativity traditionally is 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 woven twine 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.

Holiday Concerts

As part of the Christmas celebration, several concerts will be performed in front of the tree in the Medieval Sculpture Hall. They are scheduled for 6:30 and 8:30 p.m. as follows: the a cappella vocal ensemble Chanticleer on December 8 (sold out) and 9; the 14-voice a cappella ensemble Pomerium on December 13; a festive holiday program including classical masterworks by Quartetto Gelato on December 19; English music from the 13th to the 15th century by Anonymous 4 on December 20; soprano Dawn Upshaw and The Aulos Ensemble on December 21; and an ensemble of flute, viola, and harp, with soprano Heidi Grant Murphy, on December 22. Chanticleer on December 8 and 9 and Quartetto Gelato on December 19 will be presented in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium. Concert tickets are $40 each and are available by calling the Department of Concerts and Lectures at (212)570-3949.

Also of Interest: From Van Eyck to Bruegel

Visitors to The Metropolitan Museum of Art this holiday season will have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see an extraordinarily wide range of early Netherlandish paintings depicting the Nativity, Adoration of the Magi, Annunciation, and the Madonna and Child, among other scenes of the life of Christ. The special exhibition, From Van Eyck to Bruegel: Early Netherlandish Painting in The Metropolitan Museum of Art, has united some 140 masterpieces from four separate collections within the Metropolitan and The Cloisters. Highlights of the exhibition include Hans Memling's Annunciation, the Nativity altarpiece from the workshop of Rogier van der Weyden, Gerard David's triptych depicting the Nativity with Saints Jerome and Leonard, Quentin Massys's Adoration of the Magi, and Robert Campin's Merode Triptych, a landmark in the history of art and one of the most beloved paintings in The Cloisters. The exhibition is on view through January 3.

Christmas at The Cloisters

The Cloisters, the Metropolitan Museum's branch in northern Manhattan for medieval art, will also celebrate the Christmas season with an array of events. The hand-woven wreaths and garlands that deck The Cloisters from mid-December to early January are crafted of herbs, berries, and greens linked with the medieval celebration of Christmastide. The arched doorways of the Main Hall are adorned with ivy, nuts, and apples. A sheath of wheat bound with ivy stands in the lavabo in the Cuxa Cloister, and a garland made of boxwood festoons the Italian ciborium in Langon Chapel. In conjunction with the Christmas decorations, The Cloisters will offer a series of educational programs, including family programs and Saturday lectures. Also, concerts of European medieval music dating from the 10th to the 15th century are scheduled throughout December.

October 26, 1998

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