On a visit to some friends who live in Montpellier in the south of France we were taken to the extraordinary medieval village of St Guilhem le Désert where we visited a museum that included a 3D miniature landscape tableau. This spectacle was a closely observed and carefully recreated version of the neighbouring hills – populated by tiny clay figures, known as ‘santons’, working very hard at their local, traditional occupations (click on the photos below to see larger image)
The man who created this marvellous scene – he’s a ‘santonnier’ – was there and selling some versions of the figures; he told us that one their distinctive features is that they balance so well, no clumsy clods of earth and fake grass to make them stand up! We also learned that creating these models was part of a tradition of the region, originating further east in Provence, the figures often appearing in elaborate Nativity scenes. We couldn’t not buy one! Out tiny trophy (he’s only about 5 cm tall) is a woodcutter carrying a bundle of sticks on his back, and joins the medley of creatures who wend their way annually along the mantelpiece, with the Krakow Skopka at the other end; more on that in the next day or so.
Internet hunting on our return home provided more details revealing an intriguing undercurrent of political subversion:
“The santon was a child of the French Revolution, paradoxically invented by a counter-revolutionary. It was egalitarian because it represented in miniature the entire spectrum of post-Revolution Provence—commoners all, little people most, aristocrats none, except for the royal Magi. It was counter-revolutionary because it incorporated the Nativity scene into its secular world. Ultimately free-spirited, for a time the crèche antagonized both the Church and the Republic. The Church tolerated it only as trivial entertainment for children; the homogenizing French Republic frowned upon it as a subversive expression of regional identity. But the people loved these little figures, who seem to have made their first official public appearance in 1803, within the framework of the Foire aux Santons, held in Marseille by three vendors. The sale of 180,000 santons, recorded in 1886, illustrates their persistently growing popularity despite the hostility from higher quarters. Today hundreds of santonniers work all over southern France, even far from Provence in the remote heartland of the Aveyron and the Lozère.”