NEW HAVEN – There are three things that Italian crèche artist Antonio Cantone brings to mind when he is creating a Nativity scene: art, religion and the heart of a child.
Mr. Cantone, whose Neapolitan crèche was selected by Pope Francis for display in St. Peter’s Square last Christmas, has several Nativity scenes currently on exhibit at the Knights of Columbus Museum in New Haven.
Art, he indicates, is the aspect that leads to the care and detail involved in making the distinctive figurines and scenery so common in Neapolitan crèches. Religion reminds him that his artwork is in service to the church and its ongoing mission of evangelization. The heart of a child, however, is what he hopes to reach in every viewer, young and old – a heart filled with wonder and amazement at what is revealed to it: the Christ Child.
Mr. Cantone proudly says that his crèche was the first of Neapolitan design to grace the piazza outside St. Peter’s Basilica.
“Pope Francis liked how all the people were positioned in awe around Baby Jesus,” he explains.
Neapolitan crèches are among the most recognizable and popular style of Nativity scenes. They place the Holy Family not in the stable setting of Bethlehem but in the heart of 16th-century Naples. These elegant and elaborate scenes feature the Child Jesus in the midst not only of adoring angels and shepherds, but also among merchants, musicians and commoners, all in awe of the presence of the Christ Child.
The ornate figurines, made of terracotta, wire and hemp, have glass eyes and detailed expressions. The animals and accoutrements – musical instruments, baskets of fruit, furniture and scenery – are minute in detail, the finest in artistic quality.
Mr. Cantone’s work fills two galleries in the Knights of Columbus Museum’s annual Christmas exhibition: “Buon Natale: Crèches of Italy.” The show, which opened Dec. 1, runs to Feb. 1, 2015.
In addition to the exhibition, the museum will feature its Christmas Tree Festival, with 24 trees trimmed and decorated with handmade ornaments by Catholic schoolchildren across the state. The festival’s opening celebration will take place from 1-4 p.m. Dec. 6, with the Yuletide Carolers, children’s crafts and a visit from St. Nicholas.
The museum will also host a Christmastime Family Day from noon to 3 p.m. Dec. 28, with live music, family activities and an opportunity to enjoy the Christmas trees and crèches with extended family and friends.
Mr. Cantone worked for a year with his wife and her family to create the 15-foot diorama that is the highlight of the museum’s Christmas show. Based in Naples, their company, Bottega D’Arte Presepiale Cantone & Costabile, proudly keeps alive the authentic 500-year custom of Neapolitan crèche making.
Of his crèche, seen by thousands last year in St. Peter’s Square, Mr. Cantone recalls that he told Pope Francis: “If this brings just one person to a new or deeper understanding of the Christian faith, it is enough.”
The Knights of Columbus Museum is located at 1 State St. and is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily with free admission and parking. For information, call 203-865-0400 or visit kofcmuseum.org.