Museum Catharijneconvent in Utrecht, which displays Christian art, has a long tradition around Christmas: It displays antique nativity scenes from its own collection. This time it will be something spectacular. ‘Suddenly we are playing in the premier league of international nativity scenes’, predicts curator Pim Arts.
At the end of last year, the Catharijneconvent bought an 18th-century Neapolitan nativity scene for 255,000 euros, which has seven hundred figures – almost nine times as many as the Neapolitan nativity scene that the museum already owned. From Sunday, the acquisition will be visible for the first time in two large display cases. Total area: 32 square meters, larger than many living rooms.
Nativity scenes from Naples are considered something special. From the 17th century, aristocrats in the Italian port city tried to outdo each other with biblical miniatures. What makes the figures with their terracotta heads and wooden limbs extra special is that they can be put in different positions thanks to a palisade made of flexible iron wire. As a result, a lot of dynamics can be created in the scenes. See the male figure rolling a barrel up a steep bridge or the dance initiated elsewhere.
Many figures needed renovation, especially as their clothes were stained. Catharijneconvent hoped to raise 40,000 euros with a crowdfunding campaign. It was double. As a result, a large part could be restored, in Utrecht and in the Neapolitan studio of three specialists: Maurilia Monti, her husband Sergio Catello and Carlo Lacoletti. The last two are cousins and belong to a family that has been setting up nativity scenes for five generations.
At the same time, De Posterij in Soest conceived and built a framework that incorporates Utrecht elements, such as the Dom tower and the famous Winkel van Sinkel (which now houses catering businesses). ‘Just as the Christmas story was transferred to Naples at the time, we are now bringing it to Utrecht,’ says Arts. The mountains remained.
The museum does not display the nativity scene in its own building, but in the adjacent St. Catherine’s Cathedral. “Because of the sheer size and because we want to start a new tradition,” explains Arts. A team led by the two Italian cousins worked for three weeks on the construction of the Christmas performance.
‘A special task’, says Maurilia Monti, ‘because we usually make nativity scenes for permanent presentations in museums.’ This is the biggest temporary nativity scene (crib) they once decorated. The Italian praises the many details in this specimen. “It’s typically Neapolitan.” The best example, according to her: a mouse that hesitates before a mousetrap that can be found under a table.
Because the acquisition has been merged with the Neapolitan nativity scene that the Catharijneconvent already owned, a total of almost eight hundred figures of people and animals were available. A quarter of this was not used. Some images were too big or too small, says Arts. Not everything has been restored yet. “Next Christmas we want to show even more.”
Some figures date from the 17th century, most from the 18th and 19th centuries – the stable was slowly expanded. The curator does not rule out that some of the figures are from the 20th century. “There are animals made of wood that still look intact. You don’t know how old they are’.
One figure is known to date from the last century. The museum bought the nativity scene from the children of a deceased couple in Antwerp. It once added a personal note to the barn: a statue of him, made by her. Now on display in the upper right room of Winkel van Sinkel.
The most beautiful nativity scene in the NetherlandsMuseum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, 18/12 to 8/1, free entry.