The Abbey CrèchePhoto Credit : Bob Mullen/The Catholic Photographer
Displayed inside a restored 18th-century barn on the cloistered grounds of the Abbey of Regina Laudis in—appropriately enough—Bethlehem, Connecticut, is a one-of-a-kind gem of historic craftsmanship. Here, behind a lighted 16-foot display window, stories come to life.
“This crèche, I believe, is one of only four in the world of this scope,” explains Sister Angèle Arbib, one of the Benedictine nuns at the abbey. It is also very likely the only one of its size to be displayed outside a museum.
The handcrafted tableau depicting the scene of Jesus’s birth was donated to the abbey in 1949 by the American collector and artist Loretta Hines Howard. Elaborate crèches were a status symbol in 18th-century Europe, and this one is believed to have been created by Neapolitan artisans who gifted it to King Victor Amadeus II in 1720 (when the Treaty of the Hague dictated that he surrender his former kingdom of Sicily and become the king of Savoy). Experts from New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art oversaw its thorough restoration in 2001.
In the crèche, the Nativity story has been transposed to an Italian mountain village made of cork bark and papier-mâché, with a mural of Mount Vesuvius in the background. The landscape is peopled with 68 figures (and 20 animals) formed from wood, terra cotta, porcelain, and jute fibers. Jesus’s mother, Mary, takes center stage, dressed in pink silk. The three kings are here, replete with turbans and embroidered robes, and three angels hover over the scene.
Just as interesting, though, are the figures on the periphery, representing an array of ethnicities and social statuses. There are peasants and merchants, children and elders. A lamplighter makes his rounds. A woman, perhaps returning from market, leads a donkey. Another walks a dog. There are scenes of frivolity and animated conversation.
“Every person that visits can find themself,” says Sister Angèle. “One day, I see myself in this scene, maybe living in this house. The next day, that may have lost its appeal, but another draws me in. It is a moment of universality.”
The crèche is typically free and open to the public to view, but due to Covid restrictions please check the website in advance, at abbeyofreginalaudis.org.