A small religious history museum just north of Philadelphia has on display 39 Nativity scenes collected from around the world. It’s a small part of the more than 200 crèche scenes in the collection of the Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn.
The Glencairn Museum — associated with the New Church, a relatively obscure Christian denomination — was founded in 1981, in the former home of Raymond Pitcairn, scion of the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company fortune.
As a religious museum — housed in a spectacularly opulent castle-mansion built in 1930 with medieval architectural elements imported from Europe — the story of the birth of Christ is central to its mission.
“Also, I feel that, beyond Christianity, the Nativity story is a very compelling narrative,” said museum co-curator Kirsten Gyllenhaal. “It has elements that make a story invigorating.”
That story is told through sculptural vignettes created by artisans around the world — from Poland, where making “szopka” scenes is an annual competition; from Tanzania, with hand-carved ebony in the traditional Makonde style; French “santons” that were once politically subversive; and a Venezuelan Nativity made entirely of dried banana peels.
A fantastically colorful, hand-carved scene with Mary, Joseph and the Magi clothed with brightly painted flowers was made in Guatemala.
“The Christ child is on a bed that looks like a chicken,” said Gyllenhaal. Many Catholics in Hispanic countries celebrate a Christmas midnight Mass called the Misa del Gallo (Mass of the rooster) because it’s believed the only time a cock crowed at midnight was at the birth of Christ.
Many of the Nativities on display emphasize the community surrounding the birth, moreso than the birth itself. There’s a massive 19th century presepio Nativity scene from Northern Italy that is about 50 square feet with 100 individual figures, including street vendors, innkeepers, wealthy merchants, beggers, and dogs.
Each time the scene is set up, Gyllenhaal said, it can be uniquely stage-directed to depict different stories.
“In the palaces and churches of Naples, these every elaborate scenes would be set up, and sometimes they would even cover more than one room. So you could separate elements of the Nativity story throughout your rooms,” she said. “And, of course, there was the concept of one-upsmanship.”
The Italian precepio Nativity is on long-term loan from Philadelphia’s Fleisher Art Memorial, which is not able to display it because it takes up too much space. The extravagant Nativity has found a home under Glencairn’s 75-foot ceilings, lit by 22-foot stained-glass windows depicting religious imagery.
The exhibition will continue until Jan. 8.