A Seasonal Collaboration”
Michael E. DeSanctis
Some time ago, I described in these pages the crèche-building activities in which I engaged as a professor of fine arts and theology at Gannon University, a Catholic, diocesan institution located in Erie, Pennsylvania. It had been my habit to construct each year, for the benefit of the entire university community, an original Nativity scene for display in one of the showcase windows of our campus bookstore. I regarded this “chalkware theology,” as I called it, as central to my academic responsibilities as the classroom instruction and research in the areas of sacred art and architecture to which I was otherwise devoted. Through it, I hoped to convey to a wide audience as attractively as possible the glory of Christ’s birth and its implications for our world today—something akin to the humble teaching ministry of St. Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), whom every “friend of the crèche” acknowledges as the originator of the Nativity scenes our circle continues to celebrate today.
Though I recently left my academic post after thirty-five years, the crèche-building has not stopped. In fact, it’s become part of a collaborative effort involving the staffs of the Erie Art Museum and the Erie Philharmonic Orchestra, along with the pastoral team at Erie’s First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, one of the many Christian places of worship in the city to open its doors over the decades to me and my students of church architecture.
The goal of our collaboration was to join the Christmas message of my projects with the choral music of the season in a neo-Gothic setting that is truly exceptional.
Sacred sculpture. Sacred sound. Sacred space.
Each was given a role to play when the church opened its doors to the public several years ago as a participant in one of the museum’s December “Gallery Nights,” a yearly event hosted on a Friday evening that attracts Erieites to venues throughout the downtown area of their city and followed the next day by matinee and evening performances of Handel’s Messiah by musicians of the Erie Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.
The practical challenges of staging what has grown into kind of “Messiah Weekend” are mostly left to the church’s helpful staff, who assist me for its Gallery Night kick-off in setting up utility tables throughout the forward part of their sanctuary. The tables are essential, as most of my constructions measure roughly six feet wide, three feet deep and four feet high. (These are by no means crèches fit for a mantel or to be tucked beneath a Christmas tree!) Some likewise sit atop platforms that move on casters. Others are mechanized, like the perennial favorite among children, which features a cadre of angels that encircle the figures of Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Christ Child as they “fly” overhead. All are illuminated in some way—a fact that turns the concealed parts of my display into tangle of extension cords and power strips.
To make way for the Messiah performances scheduled for the church the following day, a small army of volunteers removes the entire Gallery Night installment to a dedicated exhibition space located near one of the public entrances serving the church’s extensive preschool program. The latter works out well, as it allows not only Messiah attendees to view my scenes but also, during the workweek, the many children enrolled in “Covenant Preschool.” On occasion, in fact, I have arrived at the space to find parents explaining the details of Christ’s birth to their children with the help of my crèches, a sight for which I am truly grateful.
My intent is to continue my “chalkware ministry” as an icon painter might, committed to an artform that doubles as prayer and to a tale of divine love too marvelous to keep from sharing with others.
Michael E. DeSanctis, Ph.D., is Professor of Fine Arts and
Theology (retired) at Gannon University.)