New Haven, Conn. A new show at the Knights of Columbus Museum features variations on the familiar nativity scene a baby Jesus surrounded by farm animals and angels in a straw-filled manger captured over centuries.
The exhibit features carvings in ivory, wood and stone, paintings and other decorative objects depicting Jesus' birth. The works come from several cultures, from the 4th century to the 20th century.
The art, on loan from museums at the Vatican, has never been exhibited as a group before in the United States and will return to the Vatican once the show ends, said curator Mary Lou Cummings.
A close relationship between the Vatican and Virgil Dechant, the former leader of the Roman Catholic fraternal organization, made the exhibit possible, she said.
"The Vatican is reaffirming its belief that these pieces should travel. In light of the events in the United States since Sept. 11th, they were adamant about sending these pieces out, for people to learn from them," Cummings said.
The show, free and open to the public, runs until Jan. 31.
It begins with a 34-piece nativity scene, carved in gleaming rosewood by Luba Christian artisans of the southeast Congo in the 1930s.
An ivory infant lies in a manger, surrounded by shepherds, wise men and animals, with features that resemble the people and animals of sub-Saharan Africa, rather than the European-looking people and animals depicted in Western art.
Fragments of a Roman sarcophagus show a donkey watching over the swaddled infant, as his mother, Mary, sits nearby.
Many works in the exhibit also depict other Bible stories or events in Jesus' life alongside images of his birth, such as the Crucifixion, the Last Supper or the Annunciation, when an angel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus.
"They demonstrate belief in salvation that through the birth of Christ, man could have a chance at salvation," Cummings said.
Artists through the ages had different ideas about how to depict Mary and her husband, Joseph.
In the early works, Mary is detached from the child, with contemplative or sad expressions, instead of the modern image of an adoring mother.
Mary may be shown this way to demonstrate knowledge that Jesus will be crucified, Cummings explained.
Joseph also is shown apart from the mother and child in early carvings, to demonstrate that he was not Jesus' father, Cummings said. Joseph sometimes is shown asleep or exhausted from the journey to Bethlehem.
In later works, Joseph takes a more active role, attending to his wife and the child.
In nearly all the carvings, paintings and altarpieces, kind-faced cows and donkeys peer over the manger to see Jesus and warm him with their breath.
Many works also depict angels, watching over the scene or unfurling a banner that reads "Gloria in Excelsis Deo."