Miniature marvels

mini feats

Miniature marvels

A rotund woman with a pot of snails, a fierce looking fisherman with his basket of waxy fish, a swarthy gypsy woman with her tambourine, and a farmer with his long-snouted pig searching for prized truffles — I am looking at a world in miniature... a Nativity scene is common practice around the world. 

But it is only in Provence, France that crèches are infused with a joie de vivre with figurines called ‘santons’ that represent people from all walks of life, bringing gifts to Baby Jesus.

“Making a santon is like playing at being God the Father and, like Him, producing a man from clay,” said historian Marcel Provencal. 
Little saints

Santons, meaning ‘little saints’, originated as part of Nativity scenes that are attributed to St Francis of Assisi whose mother was from Provence.

They used to be made from painted and gilded wood and set up inside churches. Later, they became status symbols of wealthy families, adorned with fine porcelain or Venetian glass. 

In France, during the French revolution, the churches were used as stables or ammunition depots and public display of religion had dire consequences.

Because the people were banned from worshipping in churches, they secretly made crib figurines from clay, cloth and even bread for worship in homes.

It was artist Jean-Louis Lagnel from Marseilles who started producing clay santons commercially in 1764, and made it affordable to the common people.

Today, it’s a heartwarming custom to have santons inspired by folklore and tradition, as part of the Christmas Nativity scene.

The santons come in all sizes: from the pint-sized Puces to Grand Santons, which can be up to 20 cm high!

“They are to create an illusion of three dimension in the crib, with large ones in front and the petite ones at the back,” explains my guide, Claire Novi.

There are basically two types of santons — santon d’argile, which are hand painted clay figurines, and santons habilles, which are the dressed up figurines with various props and implements.

A typical Provencal crib scene has the Holy family, the Magi and shepherds as the centerpiece and the whole village around, with people both rich and poor, in their traditional costumes.

The complete village may have as many as a hundred little figures with the mayor, pastor and even gypsies included.
 That’s not all, there is a perfect landscape created with olive trees, streams and bridges, barns, animals like sheep dogs and even pigeons on roofs!

I am in the windswept village of Les Baux de Provence, near Avignon, which is perched on a massive promontory with its troglodyte homes and a maze of narrow passages, dungeons and rooms.

I take some respite from the fierce mistral and spend some time at the Santons Museum, housed in a historic building dating back to 1618. 

Museum of santons

The museum houses extravagant Neapolitan santons with elaborate silk costumes from Italy made out of wood, in the 17th and 18th centuries, alongside 19th-century santons made for churches with glass eyes and papier mache faces.

There are exquisitely crafted santons elevated to an art form by famous makers such as Carbonnel, Fouque, Jouve and Peyron Campagna.

The ones that I take to are the simple Provencal santons depicting Biblical characters or local professions like farmers, shepherds, fishermen, gypsies, lavender sellers and people playing a local game called boules.

How is a santon created?  

The santons are traditionally made from clay, out of two halves moulded together, with legs and hands added using liquid clay called barbotine.

The santon is then fired and baked in a kiln.

It is then water-proofed with Arabic gum and hand painted after which the accessories like baskets and caps are pasted on with adhesive.

Every santon is clothed in lace, silk or leather with close attention to detail: I feast on bright Provencal fabrics, gold trims and flounced sleeves.

The santonnier gathers a bounty of things from nature — twigs and stalks, bunches of lavender, seeds and thyme to decorate the santon. 

I am told that every region has santons that are peculiar, like the bulls of the marshy Camargue region, the lavender sellers and truffle pigs of the North and so on.

A santon fair is an annual event here when you can stock up on new santons.
 All over Provence there are artisans who allow you to visit their workshop and watch the process.

Many French families tend to stick to one santonnier they like and build up a collection of his creations for their crèche, and this is handed down from one generation to the next.

In spite of their diminutive stature, the attention to detail is fascinating: a lacy bonnet, a precise fold of a garment, a wrinkle on the forehead, the buttons on a man’s waistcoat, the fleeting smile on the face of a chestnut seller and stones, moss or rocks that embellish the scene and make it life-like.

Seeking quality 

Claire tells me that a Provencal crib can have as many as 55 individual figurines.
 “How do you judge the quality of a santon?” I want to know.

“Well, if it is one piece with no wires attached, the clothes are hand-stitched, not glued or pasted, then you can be sure that the santon is of good quality,” she explains.

Also, a santon is usually signed by its creator, and the face and hands are where the talents of the sculptor are most displayed. 

I pick up a cheerful farmer with a bunch of dried lavender in his hand and a fishwife with a basket, lovingly wrapped in tissue paper.

Much later, when I am back home, whenever I catch a whiff of lavender, I am transported to Provence.

After all, the santon is a delightful bit of French folklore that has basked in the sunshine of the region for you to cherish forever.


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