Text provided by the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center
The Pope John Paul II Cultural Center’s eighth annual creche exhibit, “Joy to the World,” is showcasing more than 300 Nativity scenes from 47 countries around the world through Jan. 27.
The center, in Northeast Washington near Catholic University, boasts the largest display in the metropolitan area. All are welcome to view the magnificence of the sets during regular public hours throughout December and January and special holiday hours. Theme-decorated Christmas trees, including ones with lavish handmade Polish ornaments, are on display throughout the exhibit.
Most of the creche/Nativity items are from the center’s permanent collection, donated by the Rev. James H. Profota of Michigan and Mr. and Mrs. Horst Otterstetter of Virginia, but several are on loan from the Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation of Palestine, Mr. and Mrs. Chip Stammer, and Mr. and Mrs. David Strong of Maryland.
The exhibit has numerous creches made from different mediums from nations around the world, as the custom of creating a Nativity scene in churches, one’s own home or public forums is found in every country and culture. However, Nativity displays were not an early church custom but are of a more recent vintage and can be dated to a specific time, place and person.
In 1223, St. Francis of Assisi celebrated the Feast of the Nativity by putting together the first creche scene as a background to the celebration of Mass in the town of Grecio, Italy. St. Francis said, “I desire to represent the birth of that Child in Bethlehem in such a way that with our bodily eyes we may see what He Suffered for lack of the necessities of a newborn babe and how He lay in a manger.”
Franciscan Friars spread this devotion of the first moments of Jesus’ life, and since that time, the creche has become a familiar tradition everywhere in the world where Christmas is celebrated. Creches were made of elaborate and costly materials and composed of many figures. However, the popularity of the practice also led to the manufacture of low-cost creches and caused even the very poor to make their own out of very simple materials. The exhibit at the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center has some very good examples of these practices. Creches on view are made with gold, silver, pewter, paint, wood, glass, porcelain, seeds, banana leaves, corn husks and burlap. They range from simply showing the solitary figure of the Christ Child in a manger to ones that have more than two dozen figures.
One example is a Nativity scene from Honduras made entirely out of different types of seeds. The maker used a great deal of ingenuity in picking seeds that resemble crowns for the wise men, seeds that have markings that seem to make faces, and other seeds that look like different kinds of plants for the background decoration. Another is a Nativity made of burlap from Argentina. It is very simply made, with the burlap folded and tied to resemble human figures. The contrast between creche figures and Nativity plates designed by Faberge with their gold and rich enamel is striking.
Miniature creches are an art form in themselves. Many artisans try to see how small they can make a Nativity scene or out of what kind of exotic material one can be crafted. Nativity scenes have been placed on a thimble or inside an eggshell or even made from bark fungus, which you may see when you come to the center. The creches all attest to a personal spiritual devotion and also an attempt to give honor and glory to God, however limited the means of the makers. The poverty of the materials is also a striking reminder of the poverty of Christ’s birth, a fact too often forgotten with the richness of our own Christmas celebrations.
The Nativity story has also been a favorite of painters over the centuries, down to the present day. The center has several paintings on display, including a magnificent one from Nigeria in which the Holy Family are depicted as native Nigerians. It was a gift to Pope John Paul II. Other Nativity-themed gifts to him also are on display.
HOURS: The galleries are closed on Christmas, on Saturday and on New Year’s Day. They will be open next week for self-guided tours of the “Joy to the World” exhibit and other magnificent art during special hours Sunday through Wednesday: Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.; Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; and New Year’s Eve from 10 a.m. to noon. Closed New Year’s Day. Regular gallery hours resume on Jan. 2. See www.jp2cc.org.
DONATIONS: Admission to the Pope John Paul II Cultural Center is by donation. Suggested donations are $5 for individuals; $15 for families; $4 for seniors and students. To book a group visit, call 202/635-5475. The address is 3900 Harewood Road NE Washington, D.C. 20017.