Dec 18, 2013
08:13 AM
Arts & Entertainment

Crèche in Bethlehem, as Rare as Metropolitan Museum of Art's, Welcomes Visitors

Crèche in Bethlehem, as Rare as Metropolitan Museum of Art's, Welcomes Visitors

Wendy Carlson

      For the past 40 years, holiday visitors to the Metropolitan Museum of Art have made an annual trek to see its fabled Christmas tree and elaborate 18th-century Neapolitan Nativity scene. The handcrafted crèche, set in Naples where it was created, not only features the obligatory cast of Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and the three Wise Men but goes way beyond with the addition of 50 cherubs and angels suspended above. Also included are hundreds of shepherds, townspeople and peasants, all small individual works of art dressed in costumes of the day.

      The crèche was a gift to the museum from Loretta Hines Howard, an artist from Bethlehem, Conn., who collected Nativity figures. But in 1949, Howard also gave a similar smaller set to the local nuns at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem. The sisters set up the crèche in a tiny barn off the beaten path where it remained, with its value unrealized, for 60 years.

     In 2002, a restoration project was drawn up for the crèche, as well as for the barn it was housed in. It was completed in 2008, and is a sight to behold. After viewing the stunning results, I was moved to share the story of this work of art. Here is my account, which was published in Connecticut Magazine’s December 2010 issue:

      It never hurts to have friends in high places. Ten years ago, Sister Angèle Arbib, a Benedictine nun at the Abbey of Regina Laudis in Bethlehem, showed her friend Harold Koda an elaborate crèche that was kept in an antique barn on the property. It was given to the abbey by a local artist, Loretta Hines Howard, in 1949 in memory of her husband. When Koda saw it he said, “You’ve got something really magnificent here.” The crèche looked familiar to him. Turns out, Howard had given a similar one—which happened to be the renowned Neapolitan Baroque presepio that visitors flocked to see every Christmas season—to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and Koda was the accomplished curator-in-charge of the Met’s Costume Institute.
     “If you don’t restore it, you’re going to lose it,” he told Sister Angèle. “You absolutely have to do this.” Then he volunteered to put together a restoration plan for the abbey’s newly identified 18th-century Neapolitan crèche, thought to have been created in 1720 for Victor Amadeus II, King of Sardinia.
     The assemblage comprises 68 figures carved of wood, porcelain and jute dressed in silk costumes, some 14 to 16 inches high, and is set in an Italian seaside village rather than in Bethlehem (where it wound up, anyway!), reflecting the place where it was created. Bark from cork trees was used to make the buildings.
     Koda’s restoration team included Jeff Daly, chief designer at the Metropolitan, Won Ng, a Met conservator, and Carl Wenden, an architectural restorer from Southbury. Each worked painstakingly to maintain the integrity of the piece. Daly designed a climate-controlled case, and traveled to Naples to photograph the Bay of Naples to act as a template for a new hand painted backdrop. Ng meticulously restored all of the figures. “Won would spend an extra 14 hours to save a sleeve rather than replace it,” says Sister Angèle. Wenden reconstructed the barn incorporating many of its original boards.
     It took three years to raise the money for the project, and three more to complete the work. “We really want people to come see it,” says Sister Angèle.

     The crèche is open daily from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. with free admission through Jan. 6., and reopens on Easter Sunday. For further information, visit

Crèche in Bethlehem, as Rare as Metropolitan Museum of Art's, Welcomes Visitors

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