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Christmas tree and Neapolitan baroque creche now up at the Met

RENEE MINUS WHITE Fashion & Beauty Editor | 11/30/2011, 5:22 p.m.

The Christmas tree and Neapolitan baroque creche are on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art now through Jan. 8, 2012.

The 20-foot blue spruce is beautifully lit and hung with a collection of 18th-century Neapolitan angels and cherubs. These exquisite pieces hover among its boughs, and groups of realistic creche figures flank the nativity scene at its base. The tree is set in front of the 18th-century Spanish choir screen from the Cathedral of Valladoloid in the Museum's Medieval Sculpture Hall, and recorded Christmas music plays in the background.

The installation reflects the spirit of the holiday season and is made possible by gifts to the Christmas Tree Fund and the Loretta Hines Howard Fund.

The towering tree is adorned with cherubs and some 50 gracefully suspended angels. The landscape at the base displays the figures and scenery of the Neapolitan Christmas crib. The display combines three elements that are traditional to 18th-century Naples.

The nativity has adoring shepherds and their flocks. The procession of the three Magi and their exotically dressed retinue of African and Asians is amazing. Most distinctive is a crowd of international townspeople and peasants figures. They are all lifelike characters with intriguing facial expressions and a variety of costumes.

The theatrical scene is enhanced by a charming assortment of animals, including sheep, goats, horses, a camel and an elephant. Background pieces create a dramatic setting for the nativity, including the ruins of a Roman temple, several quaint houses and a typical Italian fountain with a lion's-mask waterspout.

The popular Christmas custom of restaging the nativity is traditionally credited to Saint Francis of Assisi. The employment of man-made figures to reenact the hallowed events reached its height of complexity and artistic excellence in Naples, where local families, often assisted by professional stage directors, vied to outdo each other in presenting elaborate and theatrical creche displays.

The high artistic estimation of the genre is evidenced in works of the finest sculptors of the period, including Giuseppe Sammartino and his pupils Salvatore di Franco, Giuseppe Gori and Angelo Viva, who were all called on to model the terracotta heads and shoulders of the extraordinary creche figures. The collection includes numerous works attributed to these as well as other prominent artists.

The museum's creche figures, works of art unto themselves, range from 6 to 20 inches in height. They have articulated bodies of tow and wire, heads and shoulders of terracotta and are polychromed to perfection. Figures wear luxurious and colorful costumes. Some clothes are originals, which were often sewn by women of the collecting families and their ladies. These styles are embellished with jewels, embroidery and elaborate accessories, including precious metals in the form of gilded censers, scimitars and daggers and silver filigree baskets.

The placement of the approximately 50 large angels on the Christmas tree and the composition of the creche figures and landscape vary slightly from year to year, and new figures are added to the collection.

Dramatic lighting ceremonies will take place this year on Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Sundays at 4:30 p.m. and Fridays and Saturdays at 4:30, 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. The museum will be open for special Holiday Mondays on Dec. 26 and Jan. 2, 2012. For more information, visit www.metmuseum.org.

Not to be outdone, the Cloisters will also unveil their "Medieval Decorations" exhibit on Dec. 13, to run through Jan. 2, 2012.