My first memories of these dolls are of the vintage 40s and 50s nativites at my Grandma's every Christmas. I fell in love with the miniatures then, and with their tiny stables strewn with miniature pieces of hay. One even played music, and it fascinated me. My first encounters with religious images were with the pictures my Uncle showed me in my childrens book of Bible stories, and of the icons we had at home and in church.
When I was about 5, and my grandparents and aunts and uncles moved, my mother took me to Woolworth, and my collection of nativities and religious dolls was born. There were bins and bins of tiny plaster figures, from one inch to six inch high, of The Holy Family, angels, shepards, The Magi, lambs, donkeys, cows, and all sorts of animals. They were made in Italy and Japan, and each year, we added to the set. I also had figures from my Grandma's nativity, and later, my babysitter gave me her first set, bought at Woolwoorths, in the early ears of her marriage, now over 70 years ago.
I became aware of the various other types of religious figures when I was 8, and received a much wanted book, The Complete Book of Doll Collecting by Helen Young, where I first saw photos of Santons de Provence, Creche dolls from all over the world, and religious jointed figures. I learned of the Neopolitan Creches and Spanish Precipios from my friend Mary Hillier and her landmark book, Dolls and Dollmakers, when I was nine. She also had antique figures made of cake and gingerbread, somehow preserved, of Ruprecht carrying off a naughty child.
It was St. Francis of Assisi who is credited with creating the first creche. This was in the 13th century, but religious figures exist from Coptic Egypt, and paitnings and sketches are even earlier. In the Catholic countries, from the time of St. Francis on, there were competitions among those who could afford them, to set up the most elaborate nativity. These were articulated dolls of gesso covered wood, carved ivory, plaster, precious metals, you name it. Some of the female dolls were built over cages like the fashion dolls of hte 13th-19th centuries made of wood and gesso. These are popular today. The child's book Maria, and The Museum of Mary Child talk of handcarved religious figures like this, often mistaken as dolls. An artist of these is featured in the excellent film The Extraordinary World of Doll Collecting, and in July Taymor's Titus [based on Titus Andronicus by Shakespeare].
Before Christianity, there were the Goddess figures, featured in our first weg exhibit, and the images that appear in early Judaism and Islam. Many of these appear in illuminations and mosaics. There are many representaitons of Buddha and asian deities, the ancient world's Greco-Roman figures and statutes, and of course, the Ancient Egyptian representation of the gods, often Ushabti. Here, are some pictures of these, of angel dolls, Santos, Indus figures, and others in the spirit of the season. There are angel museums in Beloit, WI, and many avid angel and Christmas collectors and clubs all over the world. The Metropolitan Museum's Renaissance and 18th century angels, featured on magnificent trees also have many fans.
Myself, I have more angels, Christmas dolls, and figures than I can count and I love them all. I have aobut 100 nativites from all over the world, some miniscule, others jewelry, some dolls with clothing, and of course, my Woolworth's figures that started it all.
Merry Christmas; take advantage of visiting exhibits of nativites and religious statutes, of live nativities, and of Christmas Displays set up all over. There are many wonderful sets from SERV and UNICEF, and even fantastic Gingerbread molds and hand blown ornaments. Don't overlook plaster religious statues, nite lites, or ornaments.
God Bless Us, Everyone! Peace in 2012.