Spencer Museum of Art The University of Kansas


  • Spencer Presepio
  • 22-Nov-2011 - 15-Jan-2012
  • Gallery 316, Spencer Museum of Art, University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas

The Presepio at the Spencer Museum of Art
November 22 - January 2012 | Renaissance Gallery

Presepi, or Nativity Scenes, are a traditional part of the celebration of Christmas. As early as the 7th century a reenactment of the birth of Jesus Christ took place in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and was indicative of the growing importance of the cult of the Holy Family. Later, St. Francis of Assisi helped to popularize the custom by installing a presepio which he used to instruct the young. The Franciscans and other religious orders introduced nativity scenes in their churches and in this way they came to be produced throughout Europe.

In Naples, religious feeling was particularly strong and manifested itself through the preoccupation with the birth of Jesus Christ. Charles III, the pious 18th century ruler of the Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, was a wood carver and amateur sculptor. In addition to the standard depictions of the Infant Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the Magi, he created an elaborate presepio containing a wide range of figures reflecting the everyday life of Naples. When it was exhibited in the Royal Chapel, the group created a sensation and the palace guard was summoned to restrain the awestruck crowd. Charles III later ascended the throne of Spain and took his masterpieces with him, founding a new school of presepi on the Iberian Peninsula, where many of the most monumental examples may be found today.

During the 18th century the individual figures and architectural settings in which they were placed became larger and more impressive. While the word presepio simply refers to the rude manger or crib where the Christ Child was placed, the setting became richer and more elegant, and it became common to find fifty or more sculptures in one presepio. Although standards varied widely, many skillful artists turned their attention to this art form and they placed a tremendous emphasis on the quality of the sculpture. Some Italian churches display their intricate presepi throughout the year.

The Spencer Museum is fortunate to possess an 18th-century presepio that retains its original architectural setting. While the basement area provides shelter for various shepherds and animals, the Holy Family appears to have found refuge in the apse of a ruined basilica complete with a coffered dome and a pair of freestanding composite columns. Much of the marble sheathing has worn away to reveal rough bricks. Behind the wall additional figures are engaged in various exuberant gestures characteristic of the Neapolitan Baroque style. Each face was modeled and painted with careful attention to detail and represents a diverse group in terms of character and pose. Many figures were made entirely of papier-mâche, and some of wood, but usually the heads were of terracotta and the bodies of rags to ensure pliability. Costly silks and velvets were used for the clothing, while the elaborately embroidered costumes for the shepherds and peasants reflected an early interest in folk art. In recent years, the number of Neapolitans creating these groups has greatly diminished and this centuries-old art form is in danger of extinction.

This presepio was created in 1770 for the Massimo family through whom it was passed down to Prince Fabrizio Massimo. In 1911, Prince Massimo exhibited his extensive familial collection, including this presepio of exceptional quality. In 1914, Sally Casey Thayer of Kansas City acquired the piece. She purchased additional presepio figures in Rome and Venice, all of which were given to the university in 1917. Mrs. Thayer’s donation of this work and many others formed the basis of the original art collection at the University of Kansas, housed today at the Spencer Museum of Art.