Until last weekend, the only thing I knew about the University of Dayton was Porch Reads, a voluntary recreational reading program that the university’s library offers for undergraduate students. Named to invoke the idea of porches as popular gathering places for informal discussions, the program provides participating students with a free copy of a selected book to read. Then, they gather for food, refreshments and informal book discussions facilitated by faculty volunteers.
Now, when I think of the private, Catholic university in Dayton that was founded by the Marianists in 1850, its collection of thousands of nativity scenes comes to mind.
The seventh floor of the University of Dayton’s Roesch Library is home to the Marian Library, the world’s largest, most comprehensive collection of materials about Mary, the Mother of Jesus Christ. To promote study, research and devotion to Mary, the library offers over 100,000 books and pamphlets in 50 languages; more than 63,000 media clippings; over 10,000 slides illustrating Marian art; Christmas cards, holy cards, prints, postage stamps, statues, medals and Rosaries depicting Mary; and audiovisual material on Marian themes, including recordings of Marian music.
In 1994, the Marian Library began to collect nativity scenes that reflect international customs and traditions. Three years later, the library began to place some of those crèches on top of book cases and in between rows of books. As the collection grew to include more than 1,300 nativity displays, the library opened its own year-round nativity museum, changing displays at the beginning of the Christmas season. In recent years, the seasonal crèche display has expanded to two other floors of Roesch Library. Volunteers inventory the nativities and build displays for them, incorporating natural items like twigs, dried statice and sand to enhance their visual appeal.
This year, dozens of nativity scenes recreating Christ’s birth are on view. In the first floor gallery of Roesch Library, And Animals Were There features several crèches highlighting the animals who faithfully kept the Christ Child company, such as in a hand-painted papier-mâché Marolin nativity from Germany and a typical Alpine habitat for shepherds and their sheep. The Little Saints hold court on the second floor. Santons, the little figures surrounding the Holy Family in nativity scenes, represent various trades and walks of life. Provenҫal Gypsies, brightly colored Quimper faience figures, Amish farmers, processions of Wendt & Kuehn angels, groups of figures dressed in Swiss folk costumes and red-winged Walter Werner angels from the Erzgebirge region of Germany are some of the handcrafted figures on display.Mischievous figures represent the Icelandic folk tale of the Yulemen, the 13 bad boys who like to play pranks on people like scaring sheep, looking through windows, hiding behind doors and stealing food until they disappear on January 6.
Other display cases contain holy cards depicting Saints Nicholas, Barbara, Andrew and other saints with feast days during the holiday season. A recipe for Provenҫal chocolate mendiants relays that the colors of the fruit and nuts they contain are reminiscent of the robes of Franciscans, Carmelites, Dominicans and Augustinians during the Middle Ages.
On the seventh floor, see more nativity scenes in the Marian Library Crèche Museum’s Christmas – a Celebration of Beauty. A three-tiered display of Goebel Hummel figurines shows the various reactions of children to the Nativity. A Tuscan landscape filled with dozens of figures and houses includes Saint Francis of Assisi, who popularized the nativity tradition, and Emanuele Fontanini, who founded Fontanini Heirloom Nativities in 1908. Hand-painted German pewter ornaments adorn the windows of doll-sized houses in a Teutonic nativity. A tiered display case shows figures clothed in white woolen trousers, capes embroidered with symbols of nature, and other examples of the costumes of the various regions of Poland.
The Grulich Nativity Mountain includes the Nativity Cave, views of town and countryside, and the Heavenly Jerusalem. Some figures attract attention by pointing to the Infant; others carry eggs, garden tools and gifts to the manger while another rings the Angelus bell. These hand-carved, hand-painted crèche figures were created in the countries of the former Austro-Hungarian empire during a 50- to 70-year period, with the oldest dating to 1830-1850. Visual Piety, an exhibit of Christmas-themed holy cards from the collections of Brent Devitt and the Marian Library, is on display in the Marian Library Gallery. Often given as rewards for good behavior or as mementos of funerals, ordinations and sacramental events, these devotional cards are thematically grouped and displayed in handmade wooden cases. Some of the most unique examples of these ephemeral objects include hand-painted cards ornamented with calligraphy and pin-pricked borders, as well as cards embellished with Victorian scrap and die-cut lace.
My favorites were two examples of mechanical stand-up holy cards, reminiscent of fancy Valentines. The centerpiece of the crèche collection is Mirror of Hope, a sculpture on permanent display in the Roesch Library’s first-floor gallery. Sculptor Kevin Hanna was commissioned to create a unique sculpture to commemorate the University of Dayton’s 150th anniversary and celebrate 2,000 years of Christianity. The five-year project was completed in 2000, culminating in a 12-feet-long, five-feet-high sculpture containing more than 240 figures illustrating 24 scenes from the history of salvation.
Beginning with the Creation and Adam and Eve, the story told by the sculpture descends past the Tower of Babel and the growth of civilization. It then ascends toward redemption, taking the people of God back to the City on the Mount. Along the way, you can pick out familiar scenes like the Nativity, depicted at the center of the sculpture; the wedding feast at Cana; and the Crucifixion. The figure of Mary is in most of the scenes. Following medieval tradition of including familiar objects in artwork, you can spot the silhouette of the University of Dayton’s chapel at the top of the sculpture.
The University of Dayton’s annual display of nativities begins with a family-oriented open house on the Saturday after Thanksgiving. This year, the event featured a raffle for winning a handmade Peruvian bus nativity, seek-and-find brochures for prizes, live entertainment by the Dayton International Festival Singers, a college football viewing area and refreshments. Children’s activities included arranging a manger, face painting, creating an animal jingle bell bracelet, making clay animals and animal headbands, creating a Christmas card and working on coloring pages.
The free exhibits will be on display at Roesch Library through January 26, 2014. The Stable Store, in room 204 of the library, offers a selection of handmade nativities and nativity-related items. Proceeds support the library’s nativity collections. Click here for more information, including viewing hours and dates on which the exhibits will be closed.
To discover the history and symbolic meanings represented in Mirror of Hope, check out a book of the same name by Johann G. Roten, published by the Marian Library and the International Marian Research Institute in 2012.
To learn more about Porch Reads, track down “Porch Reads: Encouraging Recreational Reading Among College Students,” an article by Heidi Gauder, Joan Giglierano and Christine H. Schramm in College & Undergraduate Libraries, Volume 14, Issue 2, 2007, pages 1-24.
For more information about the Marian Library, visit its website, The Mary Page. This resource offers Marian bibliographies, meditations, reviews of books and articles, current Marian news and information about art exhibits, music and shrines.