It's the season for créches. While most only appear during Christmas, the museum at the Cathedral of St. John permanently displays a fascinating Baroque Neapolitan portrayal of the nativity scene. The tradition of sculpting a créche goes back to 13th-century Italy, when St. Francis of Assisi created a straw-filled manger complete with animals to depict the story of the birth of Christ. The scene gained in popularity and the reenactment of the Christmas story spread. By the 18th century in Naples, the créché or presepio became an elaborate, dramatic work of art, complemented by local characters and scenes.

Lafayette residents Jeffery Guéno and the late Frank Hanley collected, figure by figure, a 300-year-old Neapolitan masterpiece over a period of 30 years. The presepio consists of 95 exquisitely sculpted figures ranging from 9 to 15 inches tall. Their painted faces are alive with personality, and their hand-loomed clothing is perfectly preserved. The characters occupy a landscape, built by Hanley and Guéno, reflecting the 18th century Neapolitan waterfront. Merchants hawk their wares, aristocratic ladies shop for jewelry or cloth, shepherds bring their flocks to market, a drunkard sleeps off his bout in a loft ' and quietly, in the midst of all this activity, the Magi pay homage to the Christ child while angels announce his birth from the heavens.

To add to the experience, extremely knowledgeable museum curator Janice NcNeil is always available to explain the details of this historic nativity scene.


Cathedral of St. John the Evangelist Museum (914 St. John St.) is open Monday-Friday from 9 a.m.-noon and 1 p.m.-4 p.m. Admission is $3 for adults, $1 for children. Call 232-1322 for more info.

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