I had yet to experience my first French brocante, or secondhand market, and I was itching to get my hands on some old stuff! So when someone mentioned that L’Isle-sur-la-Sorgue is a repository of antiques I was figuring out how to get there! It was simply a train ride to the “Capital City of Antiques” in the Luberon area of the Provence region. I was delighted to cruise through the picturesque town while scouring the landscape for antique stores.
When I found the antiques district, I was immediately taken with two small figurines displayed in a cabinet. The proprietor, sensing my interest, found some more. AND THEN–he brought out a suitcase full of them! The figurines are “santons” or “little saints.” During the French Revolution churches were forcibly closed because of their wealth and abuses of power. It even became forbidden to display religious scenes in public! It was important for Christians devoted to the celebration of Christ’s birth to display nativity scenes in their homes.
The santons were made of terra cotta pressed in plaster molds and simply air dried–so the older ones are extremely fragile. Occasionally you can find a hand-shaped santon, but they are rare. Today the santons are fired in a kiln, but continue to be made by “santonniers” that carry on this family craft. They are still hand-painted, and marked with a stamp on the bottom to identify the santonnier.
The unique feature of these French nativities is they are not simply composed of the Christ child, Joseph, Mary, shepherds and the the wise men. They include the villagers thronging to worship the baby Jesus! You can identify the villagers by the gift they are bringing: a miller will be holding a bag of flour, a butcher will be holding a cut of meat, the fish monger will be bringing fish, etc. Classic figures include the “galoubet” or drummer boy announcing the good news with his drum. My favorite is the character that always has his arms raised in worship to the newborn King. He is the village simpleton but understands the significance of this pivotal event in the history of the world.
I spent most of my time in L’Isle-de-la-Sorgue pouring over these santons, selecting pieces that are roughly the same size. This is a precious nativity that I will always treasure!