Monday, December 9, 2013

A Jesuit On The Creche

'Christ plays in 10,000 faces'
Crèche exhibit casts new light on message of Jesus' Nativity


For some married couples, a special aura surrounds their first Christmas. That was true for James and Emilia Govan.Together, they purchased their first crèche in 1962. Then, after a few years, they bought a second one. When several more years passed and they acquired a third, they wondered, Jim Govan says, what they were going to do with three Nativities.Although the Govans didn't know it at the time, that question, which led to their decision to collect Nativity scenes, planted the seed for the exhibition now on display at Loyola University Museum of Art in Chicago."Art of the Crèche: The James and Emilia Govan Collection" grew out of what Jim and Emilia shared: the Roman Catholic faith, an attraction to art and -- rooted in their Lithuanian and Italian immigrant backgrounds -- an interest in different cultures.The couple's collection grew slowly at first, Govan recalls during a recent interview by telephone. But in the early '80s, when they had about 20 Nativities and Jim had started reading up on the crèche's history, he and Emilia decided they wanted to document their budding collection. They wanted to learn as much as they could about the lives of the artists and artisans who made them, as well as the materials they used and how the crèches were made. Today, Govan continues to build the collection, in memory of his wife, who died in 2000. He has more than 450, all stored at his home, and has displayed them in churches and other venues -- including the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center in Washington, from 2001 through 2005.The first crèche they bought, however, never leaves Govan's Arlington, Va., home. "It represents in so many ways," he says, "the life I had with my wife. The bond and joy we had together."Although people tend to seek out traditional crèches, Govan's collection, by choice, includes many that are indigenous. The diverse cultures they represent and the sometimes unusual materials they are made of -- including potato clay and cinnamon paste -- draw people in, though. Curiosity about their own ethnic backgrounds leads many to ask, as one person recently did, "Do you have one from Slovakia?" Or Korea? an adopted child wanted to know. He does, he told them, stored in his home.Making the story theirs It's easy for a LUMA visitor to see the collection's enormous appeal. Like the stained-glass windows and Mystery Plays that predate them, crèches tell the story of faith, the

Rev. Mark Bosco says.
The Jesuit priest, an assistant professor of theology and English at Loyola University, gave a talk on the history of the crèche at LUMA on Nov. 27. When the first missionaries were sent out from Europe, "one of the first things they brought with them was the story of the Nativity," Bosco says. Jesuit records show, he adds, that the people they met -- whether from Japan, India, South America, wherever -- "were carving Mary, Joseph and Jesus with the cultural and human characteristics of their own people." Early Christians focused on the cross -- the Crucifixion -- because they saw celebrations of births "as a pagan, a Roman thing," he says. But when the Emperor Constantine issued an edict legalizing Christianity, and after his mother, St. Helena, brought back to Rome from the Holy Land a relic of Jesus' manger, Christians began to focus their attention on His Nativity. Nativities were displayed in the great cathedrals. Then, over time, they became "domesticated," Bosco says, moving into people's homes.
The movement to greater inclusiveness also was occurring in Europe in the 16th century. The Duchess of Amalfi ordered a crèche made in Naples that included 167 figurines, Bosco says. There was the butcher, the baker, and all the other members of a village and the guilds active at that time. The unique Nativity scenes that reflect their makers' cultures communicate the universal need to feel "we belong," Bosco says. "I'm part of this family."
Bosco remembers the two crèches his family had when he was growing up. An elaborate one was kept on the mantel because he and his siblings might break it. Another one, simple and inexpensive, found its home underneath the Christmas tree. He recalls, as a little kid, playing with the figurines and looking up at "this huge tree" while lying near the crèche's little Baby Jesus. The Nativity scene was easier to understand than baptism or confirmation, Bosco says. As a concrete expression of divine love, it had its counterpart in something he had experienced: familial and communal love. Like the Jesuit missionaries, he is "very aware that placing yourself in the scene of Christ makes you feel included in salvation." Universal self-giving Still, what surprises people most is "how different all of them look," LUMA docent Judy Gustafson says as she points out crèches that have caught her eye and the eyes of visitors.There's the crèche sculpted by Italian artist Francesco Scarlattella and mounted on volcanic stone from Mount Etna. Made of terra cotta, it shows an old Joseph holding the Baby Jesus, with Mary "looking on very tenderly." That surprised people, Gustafson says. Or the crèche from Texas made by third-generation fireman Alfredo Rodriguez, a santos carver: someone who carves saints. She points to a rooster and says, "You see that in a lot of Hispanic culture crèches." The story goes that the only time the rooster crowed at midnight was to herald Christ's birth. And in Spain, they still have a Mass of the Rooster at midnight, she adds.A crèche made of wood includes a yak. It was made by a Mongolian artist named Batmunkh, who became a Mormon convert. The crèche by Ethiopian designer Hannah Luthi, who teaches craft skills to young people, is made of a variety of materials: cloth, wood, wire, stone, straw, leather and plastic. It shows both an old shepherd dressed in traditional clothes and a young shepherd in bluejeans.Musicians offer music as a gift in many crèches. A whole choir of singing angels appears in one from Poland made by Antoni Kaminski. A crèche commissioned in 2006 from California shows a burrow with "sweet eyes" who "looks very attentive," Gustafson says. She learned that the artist, Christopher Maya, felt the animals in Nativities were undercredited. To him, they are "symbols of unconditional love and devotion," she says.A crèche from Cambodia was made by several victims of land mines who were taught how to carve crèches to help them earn a living. That explains why some of the figures were made in a simplified style while others are detailed, and why the figures differ in scale and size."Even people who aren't Christians seem to like the idea of Nativity scenes from around the world," Gustafson says.Bosco, the Jesuit priest, says he sees no problem in some of the crèches being made by non-Christians. "One doesn't judge art by the morality of the artist but by how well the art signifies something." What moves people, he thinks, is not the artist but how the Nativity scene is produced and presented. A crèche's artistry is what lures people to ask themselves: "How do I relate to this?"And there, Bosco suggests, lies the power of art -- it becomes a part of you. The true test of an artist's crèche is whether it gives form to the fundamental Christian reality represented by the story of Christ's Nativity. When a work of art does that, he says, it becomes "sacramental" and "points at something beyond itself."A group of people particularizes the Nativity story in terms of a closed vision of its culture, Bosco says. As an "Italian immigrant kid," he says, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph looked like Italian Americans" when he was growing up.At the exhibit, he saw crèches with the facial characteristics of people from Peru, the Philippines, Korea, Madagascar -- more than 70 countries. Reminded of a line from a poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins, Bosco happily sums up his experience at LUMA: "It was wonderful to see that Christ can play in 10,000 faces." Room for all of humanityIn the course of collecting their crèches, Govan says, he and his wife were struck by the tolerance of some of the artists. At one point, seeking a crèche from Japan, Govan was referred to a retired Japanese professor who was a recent pupil at a ceramic school.The man, who agreed to make a crèche, spent some time on it, then sent it to Govan along with material on the history of Christianity in Japan. The man "wrote a letter that he felt much honor as a non-Christian in making the Nativity for me," Govan says. "Just that kind of openness or humanity struck me very deeply." Besides the crèches the Govans purchased or had commissioned, they received many as gifts. Govan recalls one from Russia, in particular. Orthodox icons (flat images on two-dimensional panels) are more common in that country. But 2 1/2 years after contacting an American priest at the Most Holy Mother of God church in Vladivostok, Govan received a call from the priest, who was in California for a medical checkup. "I've got a Nativity in my suitcase. If you're interested, I'll ship it to you," Govan recalls him saying.A woman who made puppets to earn a little money to support her ailing mother and herself had sewn all the clothes for the Nativity's papier-mâché figures. "She even made a blanket and little pillow for the Infant ... and then she gave it to me," Govan says. In her gift, he sees "a great act of generosity." A man in New Zealand and three Maori women, one of whom was the man's wife, gave him the one they made, Govan says. And a Jewish friend, the daughter of rabbi, gave the Govans a crèche she found in a shop. In a world full of chaos, Govan says, he and his wife learned about "common humanity."Some of the crèches in the collection were made by unknown poor people in poor countries. Some of them had never made a Nativity before. "Inside them is this gift of carving, of sculpting," yet they're "totally unheralded," Govans says. "In terms of doing the collecting, we realized we would be able to obtain Nativities that represented cultures from all over the world. We knew we could find those really nicely done by noted artists and artisans," he says."What we didn't anticipate was the richness of the social context, all the experiences we would have with people that we knew and (others we knew) only by e-mail." They taught Emilia and him so much about the kindness of people all around the world, he says.In many of the Nativities in the LUMA show, people gathered around a manger are bearing gifts valued in their culture in their arms or on their back. A chicken. Bunches of bananas. A bag of sugar. A sack of grain. Even a lobster. Thinking of the Christmas story the crèches portray, Govan says the birth of a child who will redeem mankind is "a beautiful depiction of the love of God for humanity. It comes from that simple faith, conviction."In another light, the hundreds of diverse crèches he and Emilia collected create this promising vision: that someday all the world's people may truly understand that "Christ plays in 10,000 faces."

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