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In Nativity exhibition, Jesus comes in many cultures

Ohio institute showcases works of world artists

DAYTON, Ohio -- Baby Jesus wears blue jeans and a Western shirt. The Wise Men are Indian chiefs, one in full headdress. Instead of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, gifts include water, corn, and a drum.

The University of Dayton has assembled a collection of 1,200 Nativity scenes from 45 countries, and one thing stands out immediately: Creches show what is important to a culture. Artists make the birth of Jesus more relevant by wrapping it in their local customs, costumes, and values.

The Pueblo Indian scene with Jesus in jeans is just one example. It is among 19 sets crafted by artists in New Mexico that are the latest to be exhibited from the collection; they are on display through Jan. 6 at the Dayton Art Institute.

"You don't find a religion that is devoid of culture," said the Rev. Johann Roten, director of the Marian Library at Dayton. And the converse is true as well, he said. Religion enriches culture. Visions of the Nativity in the university's collection are as different as the places that produced them.

A clown -- holding a string of red, yellow, and green-with-white-spot balloons -- is in one German scene that also is festooned with a snowman, a Santa Claus, and a walking puppeteer. A figure in a long white beard smokes a pipe with a curved stem.

German creches often include Santa. "The Germans are very much into St. Nicholas," said Tim Bennett, an associate professor at Wittenberg University in Springfield. "It's a reflection of the gift-giving."

In a Mexican set, Mary and Jesus lie in the sand surrounded by cactus and burnt-orange pottery figures in sombreros. Standing with his back to the others is Satan, who has the skull of a cow on his head and is clutching a pitchfork and bottle of liquor.

The use of Satan comes from the days when the Spanish conquistadors used the fear of the devil to convert Mexico's Mayan Indians to Christianity, said Artimus Keiffer, assistant professor of geography at Wittenberg. "It was either Satan or Christ. You picked one or the other," he said.

In one Pueblo scene, the stable is replaced with an adobe hut, and the manger with a cradleboard, used by nomadic tribes to carry babies. Bears, lizards, snakes and frogs circle Mary, Joseph, and Jesus. The clay figures have crude hands and faces and are cast in soft earthen hues of brown and tan.

"They seem more homelike and homey," said Judy Brucken, who came to see the exhibit. "It gives you an overwhelming feeling of comfortableness and contentment."

The pottery figurines are Christian in origin but also have strong cultural features, Roten said.

"The only part of the figures that is highly developed is the mouth and nose," he said. "The nose is the connecting organ with nature -- it's how we receive the breath of life and is a characteristic of living beings."

Churches were the first to create Nativity scenes, in the 13th century, followed by rich and prominent people who had their own sets created.

In the 1800s, figures began to appear that resembled people found in the artists' own towns and villages, said the Rev. John Guiliani, a Redding, Conn., artist who has painted Nativity scenes and lectured on the significance of Nativity stories.

For example, he said, scenes created by artists from the Naples area of Italy often featured fishermen, peasants, and merchants surrounding the manger.

A Swiss set shows a snowcapped stable surrounded with fir trees. Felt hats with feathers commonly worn in the Alps ride the heads of the figures, who use walking sticks to trudge to the stable through drifts of snow. A stack of firewood hugs the side of the stable.

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