The Nativity And The Santon Tradition In Provence, France

Anyone who has visited Provence in southeast France in December and January cannot have failed to notice the wonderful nativity scenes on display throughout the region and the incredible variety of the detailed, hand painted figures.

The tradition of santon making (santon means little saint) began in 1789 when the churches were closed after the French Revolution and public nativity scenes were banned. The miniature terracotta figurines were intended for ordinary people to make a crèche in their own homes to celebrate Christmas, and they proved to be so popular, withmore and more santon fairs springing up each year across the region and beyond, that santon making quickly became an important cottage industry and remains so to the present day. The skills, along with the molds, have been passed on from generation to generation within a family. Some names such as Carbonnel, Fouque, Jouve, Peyron Campagna and Toussaint have become famous and their santons highly sought after.

Santon Figurines

The molds are made by taking a plaster cast from an original carved, clay model; they are filled with fine, red clay and left to dry; When the clay has set, the figures are removed from the molds, fired and carefully hand painted in bright colors. They vary in size from 2.5cm to over 20cm high, and the different dimensions are intended to give a feeling of perspective to the scenes, with the smallest ones positioned in the distance at the back.
In the beginning, the nativity scene characters were probably limited to Jesus, Mary and Joseph, with the three kings and maybe some shepherds, but in 1797 a Marseilles santon maker, Jean-Louis Lagnel, decided to introduce some new figures to the crèche and soon the characters of the ‘Pastoral’, a Provencal Christmas play, found their way into the scene: the sleepy miller wearing a nightcap; the pompous mayor; the woodcutter; Roustido, the kind hearted merchant with his red umbrella; and the blind man and his son.The scenes are carefully created using stones, rocks, moss, branches, leaves and dried flowers collected from the nearby countryside; some people even sprout saucers of wheat or lentils to include in the scene. Ambitious settings often depict the local village or town with buildings and other landmarks lovingly recreated in miniature. The figures are moved around the scene during advent and epiphany to re-enact the progress of the holy family and the three kings as they draw near to the stable, and the baby Jesus is not added until midnight on Christmas Eve

Slowly the nativity scenes have evolved from a simple image of the Christmas story into a re-creation of village life, where the ordinary people are just as important. Some are placed around the crib, worshipping the baby Jesus, while others such as bakers are carrying out their usual daily tasks. The characters vary according to the agriculture, produce and industry of each area: there are fish sellers and fishermen in the coastal villages; old ladies selling lavender in the north of the region; chestnut sellers and woodcutters near the forests.

The figures of the animals are also important; as well as the ox and donkey featured at the crib, sheep play a central role in the Provencal nativity scenes. Christmas coincides with lambing time there, and a new born lamb is placed in a small cart decorated with candles, ribbons and evergreen branches, pulled by a ewe and accompanied by drums and pipes, shepherds and sheep as it leads the traditional torchlight procession to midnight mass. Naturally, this scene appears in miniature as a centerpiece in the crèche.

As well as the traditional figures such as the ravi, the village simpleton or seer, who is shown transported in a vision, and the caganer, or muck spreader, who is always hidden away somewhere almost out of sight, modern santon makers are introducing their own nativity characters, such as a saxophonist and a scarecrow; there are minimalist santons without facial features, and others made in just one color. Queen Elizabeth II, Nicolas Sarkozy and President Obama are recent santons of note, and it is even possible to have a santon made with your own face to put in your own nativity scene.

The scenes themselves can vary enormously in size and complexity: the smallest nativity scene, according to the Guiness record, contains 39 santons in a nutshell, while the largest crèche in the world is a Provencal village scene measuring 1136 square-meters.

There are a number of santon museums in Provence, and the village of Les Baux de Provence is a fitting place to house a magnificent collection. The lords of Baux claimed they were descended from king Balthazar, one of the Magi, and used the Star of Bethlehem on their coat arms. The museum has a great array of santons as well as scenes showing the traditional Provencal life and the Nativity, and there is also a video showing how the figures are made. The collection includes 17th Century Italian figurines from Naples made from wood with painted papier maché faces and glass eyes, exquisitely dressed in ornate costumes and set in theatrical poses. In addition, there are exhibits by many famous santon makers. Visitors who come to the site around Christmas time will also have the opportunity to see the life size Nativity, with real sheep and lambs at the crib in the cave.

The historian Marcel Provençal is quoted as saying: “Making a santon is like playing at being God the Father and, like Him, producing a man from clay”, putting into words the love and care that goes into creating these exquisite and expressive figures.