Pittsburgh's crèche traditions

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La nativita‘ incanta Pittsburgh: un opera mai eseguita prima d'ora in tali dimensioni esntusiama i passanti di Grant street, dove la scena della nativita‘ raffigura ben 22 personaggi a grandezza naturale. L‘incredibile creazione porta la firma di Giovanni D'Agostino ed il figlio Francesco, ed ha visto l'aiuto ed il supporto di alcuni membri delle craft unions -falegnami ed elettricisti- che hanno donato il loro tempo e manualita‘ per la buona riuscita dell'opera. Sisters of the Holy Spirit e Sisters of the Holy Family in Nazareth hanno preso cura degli abiti ed i costumi per i manichini costruiti in legno e cavi metallici. Luci e suoni non mancano, rendendo il tutto una suggestiva esperienza da non perdere..

Italians and Pittsburgh Italians of American descent are largely responsible for providing a beautiful holiday tradition, the Christmas crèches of Pittsburgh.

From November 19 until January 8, The plaza at the US Steel Building becomes home to the Pittsburgh Christmas Crèche. This wonderful religious statement of the Nativity of the Christ Child has become a holiday tradition in our city since 1999. The life-sized figures of the Holy Family, angels, shepherds, and wise men are made of wood and wire with the faces, hands and any exposed skin made of papier-mâché and treated to withstand Pittsburgh's winter weather. They are housed in a three-story manger with the open end facing Grant Street. Members of the craft unions, carpenters and electricians donate their time and energy to the assembly of the project. The clothing for the various figures is sewn by two religious orders, the Sisters of the Holy Spirit and the Sisters of the Holy Family in Nazareth, as is the tradition from the Vatican in Rome.

Louis Astorino, who designed the modern chapel in the Vatican for Pope John Paul II, was the catalyst for bringing the crèche to Pittsburgh. Our city's model is the only authorized replica of the original Vatican crèche on display in Rome, though many people were skeptical that Mr. Astorino would be able to obtain a replica for Pittsburgh in 1999. With the Vatican's approval, their architect, Pietro Simonelli, created the first ten figures and the plans for the Pittsburgh crèche. The Diocese of Pittsburgh actually owns the exhibit and it is sponsored by the Christian Leaders Fellowship.

The original crèche has been expanded to 22 figures and features a new stable. New lighting and audio presentations have also been added to enhance the religious aura of the display. For example, lights will shine on the figures of Mary and Joseph as they question why they were chosen to be parents of the Christ child. Other original stories of "faith and imagination" and a presentation of the biblical Nativity story have been recorded as well. The audio presentations were recorded by the Carnegie Mellon University technical center. Father Ronald Lengwin, spokesman for the Diocese of Pittsburgh, supervises the construction of the crèche and hopes that it will act as a reminder of the importance of the birth of Christ, to motivate people and the way they live.

Ten years before the Pittsburgh Crèche arrived here, another famous exhibit from Italy visited our city to usher in the holiday season. On December 6, 1989, The Wintergarden in PPG Place opened a most extraordinary exhibit for the holiday season. The exhibit, The Grand Neapolitan Christmas Crèche, had come to rest in downtown Pittsburgh for one month and grace the city with this one-of-a-kind work of fine art.

The Grand Neapolitan Christmas Crèche displayed in Pittsburgh was made in Naples in 1987 expressly for Italy Italy magazine, and brought to the United States to be displayed in a different American city each Christmas. The crèche is made in the ancient tradition and is animated by over 300 figurines made of terra cotta and clothed in the styles of the eighteenth century. When it debuted in New York City in 1987, the crèche opened to great acclaim. In 1988 the crèche moved to New Haven, CT, the second stop in its American tour. Joseph D'Andrea, Honorary Vice Council of Italy in Pittsburgh, at the time, visited the exhibit and decided that he would do all he could to bring the crèche to Pittsburgh.

What followed was what could only be called a full court press by some of Pittsburgh's most prominent Italians and Italian Americans to bring Mr. D'Andrea's dream to fruition. With names like Sarni, Astorino, D'Eramo, Farina, Milantoni, Melucci, Pontello, Alessandrini, Florence, Tropeano and Dardanell, the project moved forward and came into view. Additionally, Mr. D'Andrea met with political and religious leaders in the city to ensure that there would be no last-minute glitches to the exhibit. Everyone was on board, funds were raised, the PPG Wintergarden venue was reserved and volunteers and craft union workers donated their time to set up the scene.

Maestro Giovanni D'Agostino and son Francesco, creators of the crèche, flew into Pittsburgh from Italy to oversee the assembly of the largest crèche of its kind ever to be exhibited in the United States. The crèche was an immediate hit and many thousands of Pittsburghers examined the 33-foot long, 15-foot deep work of art and sang its praises. My family and I personally visited the crèche and the memory of its beauty is still ingrained in our minds.

In Italy, re-creating the scene of the Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem, with the newborn Christ child set in a manger surrounded by the Holy Family, angles, shepherds and animals is a custom that began in the Middle Ages and has produced many extraordinary works of art. As early as the year 354AD, there existed in Rome a chapel dedicated to Sancta Maria ad Praesepe (St. Mary of the Holy Crib). Almost a century later, on the same site, the great Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore was built and included a chapel which housed a relic believed to be a piece of the manger of Bethlehem that held the Christ Child. In 1282, the celebrated Tuscan sculptor Arnolfo di Cambia created one of the first three-dimensional Nativity scenes, or Christmas crèches.

On Christmas Eve of the year 1223, St. Francis of Assisi re-created the Nativity in Bethlehem by using living figures and animals. The followers of St. Francis throughout Italy spread the tradition of this representation after his death. An outgrowth of the tradition became known as a presepio. The presepio portrayed the Nativity using handmade figurines carved from wood, papier-mâché, coral or precious metals and its tradition became lasting and widespread throughout Italy. Naples became the city where the precipio reached its greatest development. Many near life-sized carved and painted wooden statues were created in Naples for the many churches there and some of these statues still exist in Neapolitan museums and churches today.

In the seventeenth century, the Neapolitan presepio took on new meaning with the development of smaller figurines made of wire and hemp, clothed in han made articles of clothing with hands and faces made of terra cotta or carved wood and realistically painted. The flexibility of the figurines allowed the setting to be staged and the sets became larger and larger over the years. The religious aspect of the crèche was never lost however, the crèche became a holiday delight. Many wealthy Italian families had special crèche displays produced to exhibit in their homes during the holidays.

The tradition begun by St. Francis and all the artists and craftsmen over the centuries has continued to this day with the display of nativity mangers in most churches and many homes during the holiday season. A wonderful tradition that we hope will continue during the holidays for many centuries to come.

Author's Note: Carnegie Museum of Art's Neapolitan presepio will be displayed from December 6 to January 6 in the Hall of Architecture. This antique presepio contains over 100 hand-crafted figures made between 1700 and 1830.