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Skip Rockefeller Center and See the Met’s Christmas Tree

by Liza Eliano on December 9, 2011

This year’s Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (all images courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

You can bet most tourists (and some persuaded New Yorkers) will be gawking at the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree this holiday season, but the tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has always been one of my personal favorites of decorated evergreens that spring up around the city for the holidays.

Presented in the museum’s central Medieval Sculpture Hall on the ground floor, the tree is a 20-foot blue spruce this year and it is adorned with its traditional decor of 18th-century Neapolitan angels and cherubs. There’s also the Neapolitan Baroque crèche (a fancy word for Nativity Scene) spread along the base of the tree that features figures donated to the museum by Loretta Hines Howard who began collecting crèche figures in 1925.

Since 1964, over 200 18th C. Neopolitan crèche figures have been given to the Museum by Howard and they’ve been displayed every year since.

The display at the base of the tree has the three basic elements of the 18th C. Neapolitan tradition: the Nativity (with adoring shepherds), the procession of the Magi and a colorful crowd of townsfolk.

Eighteeenth century Naples is considered one of the richest periods for this art form and even today craftspeople in Naples continue the tradition. According to a WSJ article in 2007:

  • In 18th-century Naples, at the height of the Baroque period, the nativity developed into a real art form. Funded by monarchs, local artists turned the nativity into an elaborate, dramatic scene full of characters including kings, angels, shepherds and musicians. The figures took form in all different types of material including wood and stone, and they were hand painted and dressed in the finest fabrics. Well-known sculptors, including Giuseppe Sammartino, were often commissioned to create the scenes. The nativity became the tradition of the city with artists and vendors clustered along Via San Gregorio Armeno.

Sammartino’s work, as well as that of his pupils (Salvatore di Franco, Giuseppe Gori and Angelo Viva), is included in the Metropolitan display. You can peruse through the photos of details of the tree below, but it’s worth checking it out in person to catch one of their daily lighting ceremonies or music concerts that take place throughout the month.

Detail of the Neapolitan Baroque crèche

Detail of the Neapolitan Baroque crèche

Detal of one of the angels that adorn the tree

If you’re not in New York, don’t worry. Museums across the United States are also displaying Neopolitan Baroque Crèches.

At the Milwaukee Art Museum, the institution has been displaying their historic (and much smaller) nativity scene since 2005, and the following year, Loretta Howard Sturgis, who is coincidentally the daughter of Metropolitan Museum crèche donor Loretta Hines Howard, gifted the figures to the Museum. You can see their display here:

Milwaukee's Neapolitan crèche is on view in Gallery 4 of the Collection Galleries, with European art. (via blog.mam.org)

The Kimbell Art Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, also has a Neapolitan crèche but their press department could not confirm if that would be the case this year. UPDATE: The Kimbell contacted us to indicate that the Nativity scene was a special loan years ago and would not be repeated.

Outside of museum settings there are a number of other places you can experience the over-the-top beauty of 18th C. Neapolitan crèche scenes, including the Cathedral of St John the Evangelist in Lafayette, Louisiana.

The Christmas Tree and Neapolitan Baroque Crèche will be on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1000 Fifth Avenue, Upper East Side, Manhattan) until January 8, 2012. Lighting ceremonies take place on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays at 4:30pm and Fridays and Sundays at 4:30, 5:30 and 6:30pm. For information and tickets to the museum’s Christmas celebration concert series visit metmuseum.org/tickets.

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