A 15-piece, hammered-copper Nativity on loan from the renowned Mepkin Abbey in South Carolina; a set from Laos showing the Holy Family inside a Hmong home with the newborn baby lying in a straw basket suspended from rafters; crèches crafted with native materials like birch bark, woven grass and recycled newspaper; and an elaborate traditional Italian Presepio — these unique pieces are part of an extraordinary array of Nativity sets.
Most have never been shown before locally, but are on display in the fifth annual “Follow the Star: World Nativities” exhibition running seven days a week through Jan. 5 at Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn.
The exhibition features 34 Nativity sets from 15 countries including Bethlehem in the West Bank, Ecuador, France, Germany, Haiti, India, Russia, Singapore and the United States, and is open to the public from noon to 4:30 p.m. every day, except Dec. 24 and 25, at the museum, 1001 Cathedral Road. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
Visitors will experience how Christians around the world have adapted the Nativity to represent national, regional and local cultures, said Glencairn curator Ed Gyllenhaal, who, with his wife Kirsten, is co-curator of the exhibition. The exhibition also complements Glencairn’s vast collection of Nativity art dating from medieval times through the early 20th century.
“The Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem is an awe-inspiring event for Christians,” said Gyllenhaal. “But, of course, the birth of every baby is a miraculous event that has meaning in all countries and all religions. I think a Nativity scene is something everyone can get excited about.”
The “Follow the Star” exhibition changes each year, with new and on-loan sets, along with a few established favorites. This year it features 16 sets on loan from Mepkin Abbey in Monks Corner, S.C., a community of Roman Catholic Trappist monks. As part of an exchange program, some 40 sets belonging to Glencairn this year are part of Mepkin’s Creche Festival, first launched in 2002.
On loan from Mepkin is a large, hammered-copper Nativity by artist Mary Eldredge of Vermont.
“I have tried to create an experience of joy and wonder and awe at the birth of God as man, the dawn of our salvation, in the gestures of the various figures of the crèche,” she said.
Another unusual set on exhibit is one from Laos. While most Nativity scenes include a stable, the Holy Family, the manger, shepherds and wise men, artisans like those in the Southeast Asia country often introduce innovations. The Laos set, for example, is a replica Hmong home with the baby in a straw basket instead of a manger.
Other Nativity sets feature materials native to the country where the set was crafted, like tree bark, abaca fiber, cinnamon wood paste, recycled paper and old steel drums.
This year’s exhibition unveils an elaborate Nativity scene inspired by the Italian Presipio tradition and handmade by artists Karen Loccisano and R. Michael Palan of Hartsdale, N.Y. Palan said he and Loccisano wanted to work together on a large scale project and were drawn to the Angel Tree and the Neapolitan figures around the base of the tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. “Presepio means crib in Italian. It connects God with the common man by including the Holy Family and an entire 18th century village of everyday people. The more we learned, the more excited we became about creating our own version. We have been working on the project for two years.”
Bryn Athyn, he said, “has always been a place we would go for walks to enjoy its beauty. We picked up one of Glencairn’s World Nativities brochures a few years ago at Christmas. When Karen and I started thinking of where we might display our Nativity, Glencairn was the first place that came to mind.”
The specialized settings of the Nativities are vital to the exhibition, said Kirsten Gyllenhaal, but the curators didn’t realize it until the project was underway.
“We started out with the idea that there shouldn’t be any settings for the Nativities, that we should let the sets speak for themselves,” she said. “It quickly became clear that the figures were dwarfed by the monumental architecture and artworks in Glencairn.”
The artistic settings were created by Bryn Athyn artisan Kathleen Glenn Pitcairn. “I hope visitors will stop and look at each Nativity individually and just be drawn in,” she said. “These are portrayals of the biblical story of the Nativity of Jesus Christ. To me, it’s more than just an art show.”
Glencairn has a Nativity collection and annual exhibition as part of its mission to provide people with a deeper understanding of religion through cultural expressions of faith, said Ed Gyllenhaal.
“Some visitors to our exhibition feel a personal connection with Nativities because of their own faith background, while others enjoy them simply as craft or folk arts. At Glencairn, we believe that to fully appreciate a Nativity you need to understand the historical and cultural context in which it was created.”
Glencairn’s connection to Nativity sets has a long history. The castle-like building that houses the Glencairn collection was the home of Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn for 40 years. In the 1920s, they commissioned a large, three-part Nativity which was made by craftsmen from Raymond Pitcairn’s Bryn Athyn Studios and it was displayed annually in their home. The museum has continued the tradition and the Pitcairn Nativity is always part of its annual exhibition.
In 1954, the Pitcairns commissioned Bryn Athyn artist Winfred Hyatt and Bucks County woodcarver Hanna Binder to make a single Nativity scene for their friends — President and Mrs. Dwight D. Eisenhower. It was displayed next to the Christmas tree in the East Room of the White House. Three years later, two scenes were added to the set, and in 1961, the Eisenhowers visited Glencairn. The set is now in the collection of the Eisenhower National Historical Site in Gettysburg, Pa.
In addition to the Nativities exhibition, other holiday events at Glencairn include:
• Ten Thousand Villages Festival Sale, Noon to 4:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Dec. 22. Showcasing and sale of handmade gifts from skilled artisans in some 38 countries. Items include hand loomed textiles, pottery, jewelry, baskets, musical instruments, cards, toys and a variety of Nativities. Marketed by Ten Thousand Villages, a nonprofit fair trade organization based in Akron, Pa. Admission: Donations welcome.
• “Christmas in the Castle” guided tours, Mondays through Fridays, 2:30 and 3:30 p.m.; Saturdays and Sundays, 1, 1:30 and 2:30 p.m. through Jan. 5, except Dec. 24 and 25. The 45-minute guided tours explore works of art in the Glencairn Museum collection depicting the Nativity of Jesus Christ, dating from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. Tours also reveal how Christmas was celebrated in the 90-room Romanesque-style castle when it was the private home of the Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn family (1940s to 1970s). Admission: $8; $6 seniors/students with I.D.; half price for members; children age 4 and under free. Reservations strongly recommended; call 267-502-2993.
• Epiphany Celebration, Jan. 5, noon to 4:30 p.m. Celebrate the date traditionally celebrated as the day the Wise Men visited the Holy Family. Includes “Christmas in the Castle” tour, live holiday music, family activity and light refreshments. Admission: First Floor, free. Guided tours: $8; $6 seniors/students with I.D.; members and children age 4 and under free. $20 family rate (up to age 4 individuals in one household; half price for additional guests). Trips to Glencairn’s nine-story tower: $5; $10 for three people.
For additional information about Glencairn, its exhibits and holiday events, visit www.glencairnmuseum.com or call 267-502-2600.