Story by Lynne Perrella (www.LKPerrella.com)
Photos by Lynne Perrella & Jeff Daly (www.JeffDalyDesign.com)
‘Tis the season. And if you are not quite in the holiday spirit yet, don’t worry. You are only a short, scenic drive away from a sight that will bring you good tidings and great joy. The recently-restored Creche at the Abbey of Regina Laudis is a worthy destination at any time of year – but it is especially meaningful right now, as the holiday season approaches.
My interest in Neapolitan nativity scenes (or “presepe”) goes back to my childhood, when I looked forward every year to a spectacular holiday display in the Carnegie Museum of Art in my hometown of Pittsburgh. I learned that no traditional Neapolitan crèche would be complete without the accompanying “contadini” or country folks, conducting their daily lives, depicted in intricate detail. Merchants, butchers, fish mongers, peasant ladies trading recipes and gossip, traveling musicians, impish street urchins, and farm animals….These earthy, vivid characters appear in a rustic tableau alongside the exotic costumed Three Kings, intrepid shepherds, ethereal soaring angels, and, of course, the Holy Family.
Oftentimes, things we experience in childhood provide a lifetime of curiosity and fascination; and I felt especially fortunate to learn that another noted nativity scene was a short distance away, in Bethlehem, CT, and I couldn’t wait to visit. My friend Jane and I walked the heavily-wooded grounds of Abbey Regina Laudis toward the unassuming 18th century wooden barn that houses the crèche. Leaving bright sunlight and the “real world” behind, we entered a hushed reverent environment of beauty, antiquity, and majestic artistry.
This stunning nativity tableau of over 68 figures, created by master craftsmen in Naples, Italy, was presented as a coronation gift to Victor Amadeus II, King of Sardinia in 1720. Artist and noted collector Loretta Hines Howard presented it as a gift to the Abbey in 1949, where it was displayed during holiday celebrations…but eventually this magnificent array of figures and scenery required restoration, rehabilitation and the kind of TLC that only noted museum experts could provide. In a case of well-timed heavenly intervention, a team of dedicated experts from the Metropolitan Museum of Art became engaged with the process of restoring the Crèche. The outcome of their efforts is nothing short of breath-taking.
Harold Koda, Jeff Daly, and Won Ng from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as local craftsmen and carpenters took on the task of the complete restoration, including the aesthetic conservation of the figures, textiles, and intricate cork scenery; as well as the structural and technical challenges of a climate-controlled environment, fiber-optic lighting, and painted scenic backdrop.
When I met recently with Jeff Daly, one of the Metropolitan Museum experts who revived and restored the crèche to its current miraculous state, it was a rare opportunity to get a deeper insight into the overall restoration process. (Frankly, just learning more about Jeff’s 30-year career with the Metropolitan Museum plus his current-day design projects was a treat for me — but that is a different blog post.)
The rare and exceedingly-valuable figures and costumes had insect-related damage and were grime-encrusted. The surrounding Neapolitan village made of painted cork, moss, and paper mache required total restoration, and a new segmented wooden support structure. A painted mural of the skyline of Naples with distinctive outline of Mount Vesuvius now provides a seamless backdrop. Subtle fiber-optic lighting graces the scene with an ethereal enveloping glow, while adding a tiny sparkle to the eyes of a gentle donkey. Best of all, the whole tableau is now protected from the elements, assuring that all the expert restoration work will survive the ages.
This amazing tableau, once the property of a King, continues to inspire everyone who makes the journey to Bethlehem Connecticut to the Abbey of Regina Laudis. Come and celebrate the eternal story of the crèche, as well as the feel-good story of a generous and consummate restoration. Happy Holidays!