PHILADELPHIA (CBS) – For the Christmas season, Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, Montgomery County displays dozens of colorful nativity sets from around the world, each more elaborate that the last.
Glencairn, a Romanesque castle built in the 1920s, was once the home of the Pitcairn family before it became a museum of religious history and art. Only at Christmastime can you meet hundreds of nativity figures from around the world.
“In the World Nativities Exhibition, we have 40 nativities on display,” said Joralyn Glenn. “Exactly half of them are on loan. Even if you’ve been to Glencairn before, you haven’t seen them here before, and you probably won’t see them again.”
On the glassed-in North Porch, Meisha stopped at a pastel nativity scene drenched in sunlight. “I don’t know what it is about this one in particular that makes me so happy, so happy,” Meisha said.
“That’s what we want to do!” Joralyn said. “It was donated to us from a family in Boston, and it’s cast stone that has been painted.”
“Heavy, aren’t they?”
“They are heavy!” Joralyn said. “The whole set together is half a ton.”
You don’t have to travel to get a glimpse of Italy’s traditional and elaborate nativity scenes, often called presepio or presepe. Glencairn has one from Naples.
“First thing my eye goes to, the beautiful angels,” Meisha said. “I mean, talk about detail. It literally makes me feel like I’m watching a town. Movement! It looks like a film set.”
That’s the idea, Joralyn said. “You can see the Wise Men, shepherds. Images you’re used to seeing. But then you’ll also see vendors selling their wares. You even see a little bit of a circus. They did want to bring to life the idea of the whole town coming out to see the Holy Family.”
A related exhibition, Do You See What I See: Imagery in Nativity Scenes, “breaks out the nativity,” placing the same figures from different sets together for comparison’s sake, with signs explaining their history. “The three Wise Men, what Joseph looks like, why Mary wears blue,” Joralyn said, “and I’m not sure we have an answer.”
Under one of Glencairn’s signature dramatic arches are three nativity scenes side by side, just as commissioned by Raymond and Mildred Pitcairn in the 1920s. Each scene is tucked inside its own diorama-style box with arched viewing window and a flickering blue background.
“It shows, in the center, the traditional manger theme,” Joralyn said. “On the left, there is the angel appearing to shepherds to announce the birth of Christ. Then on the right, the Wise Men seeing the star, and they will eventually then make their way to see the Holy Family.”
“What material is that that’s housing it?” Meisha said.
“Wooden boxes, handpainted,” Joralyn said. “From the beginning, they knew this would be a centerpiece of their holiday season.”
The World Nativities Exhibition runs through Sunday, January 7, 2017 at Glencairn Museum, 1001 Cathedral Road, Bryn Athyn, PA 19009. The museum is closed Mondays. It is also closed Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and other major holidays.
The museum otherwise is generally open from 12:00 to 4:30 PM Tuesday through Sunday. You’re welcome to visit without taking a tour, but the museum staff recommends reserving tours in advance. Also, it’s a good idea to check museum hours by phone before you go, in case it is closed for an event or a private showing.
You can reach Glencairn at 267-502-2600 or through their website,https://glencairnmuseum.org