Friday, December 18, 2015

Archives Display: Santons

A few figures in our santon display

In the spirit of Christmas, the reading room display in the Archives and Special Collections features an arrangement of santons. Santons, or little saints, are small clay figures created in the Provence region of southeastern France. They depict the nativity scene as well as people traditionally associated with village life in the Provence region. Santons are made of hand-painted fired clay, though more rarely they may be clay figures dressed in cloth, and once were made of wax and wood.

French artist Jean-Louis Lagnel, who had made figures for church nativity scenes, made the first santons. This was during the French Revolution, when anti-religious sentiment made large nativity scenes in churches forbidden, making smaller household ones desirable.  Some people even set their santons among flowers or moss to create a more realistic setting. Many families may move the figures daily, for instance increasing the distance the wise men traveled or placing Jesus in the crib only on Christmas.

Memo from Sister Marie Ursule Sanschargrin, 1986

Our set includes tradespeople, fishmongers, scissor-grinders, women spinning flax or wool, and fishermen, among other characters.  This set seems to be a mixture of pieces produced by several artists, with the signatures “Carbonel,” “TS,” and “Wincy[?]” marked on some of the figures. It was donated in 1986 by Sister Marie Ursule Sanschargrin, who taught French at St. Kates from 1926 to 1972, and who brought these santons from France.  Santons continue to be created today, with one website claiming that for between $880 and $1100 you can commission a santon of yourself!

We have over two dozen santons of various sizes in our display. The colors are bright and cheerful and the attention to detail is quite amazing. See for yourself when you visit the display (and us!) in person in Room 62 of the Library, open Monday-Friday from 9:30-4:30 p.m. 

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