Collector and artist Loretta Hines Howard first started collecting Nativity objects in 1925, eventually amassing dozens and dozens of angels, shepherds, Magi (plus attendants), and Holy Family figures. A longtime supporter of The Met, she donated her holdings—some 19 cherubs, 59, angels, and 71 other figures—to the Museum in 1964.
Mrs. Howard devised the original idea of presenting her Neapolitan presepio (crèche) scene under a Christmas tree—merging the artisanship of Mediterranean figurine makers with a Northern European holiday tradition. She set up the first display of her Neapolitan figures at The Met in 1957—and until her death in 1982 continued to refine the presentation of her charming collection each season, to the delight of Met audiences.
The figures average between 12 and 15 inches in height; finely crafted of carved wood and modeled terracotta, all feature wonderfully detailed, carefully stitched folk costumes. (Some of the angels’ heads can be attributed to Giuseppe Sammartino, a well-known sculptor active in 18th-century Naples, and his pupils Salvatore di Franco, Giuseppe Gori, and Angelo Viva.) Since the figures were made to be posed in such a Christmas display, each is made from wire and thus pliable—creating endless possibilities for the delightful diorama.
To this day, the presentation of the crèche and tree every year remains a huge draw for visitors to The Met from around the world, of all faiths. Loretta Hines Howard’s passion has turned into an irreplaceable annual tradition.
Celebrate the season with an array of ornaments, jewelry, accessories, and other gifts featuring the Museum’s beautiful holiday display, available at The Met Store.