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The Provencal nativity scene

What are ‘Santons’?

Typically, santons are clay figures traditionally made in Provence and used to create nativity scenes with the Holy Family and familiar religious nativity characters as well as people from everyday village life such as artisans, market traders, washer women, wine makers and animal herders.

They were first made during the French Revolution- although some claim that their origins go back much further than this to the time of Saint Francis in the 13th Century.


The first popular figurines and their makers.

We’re familiar with figurines made of clay, but what were they made of before?

Spun glass figurines originated in Venice in the 16th century. From there, glassmakers came and settled in Nevers in central France, where they trained apprentices who became true specialists and who subsequently worked throughout France until the beginning of the 19th century.


PHOTO Wise King Melchior spun glass (Nevers 18th century)


PHOTO St-Antoine in spun glass (Puiseux Antiques gallery)


The city of Marseilles specialised in the manufacture of mastic figurines called ‘breadcrumbs’ from the middle of the 18th century. It was a process whereby ordinary bread, warm, straight out of the oven, was kneaded by hand, resulting in a dough that could be shaped and moulded like plasticine. Wires inside the figures gave them strength and rigidity and allowed the limbs to be manipulated into different positions. The appearance of clothes was added using a thin paste and the figurines were then painted with oil and varnished. The finished figures had a translucent appearance similar to porcelain.


PHOTO Santons made from bread (Pierrefeu du var-santons)



Simone JOUGLAS, best santon worker in France.

Born in 1907, Simone Jouglas was a famous santonnière from Provence. After studying

dental ceramist, she went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Marseille to learn casting techniques. During the Second World War, when she couldn’t work with metal due to a scarcity of materials, she began to carve the faces of crib figurines based on the features of well-known personalities.

In 1952, she was made a Knight of the Order of French Artisanal Merit,

In 1961 she was named Best Worker of France and

In 1966, she was awarded the Gold Medal of French Merit. Her figurines, typically 30 centimetres high and with particularly expressive faces, are sold all over the world.

She died on July 31, 2001.

Her workshop continued to produce large santons from the moulds she created.



Manufacture and aesthetics of the santon.

There are several sizes of santons:

  • The very small ones called santon ‘chips’ range from 1 to 3 cm approximately.

  • The most often used traditional figurines range from 7 to 9 cm - with details, on the faces, on the folds of skirts and capes, as well as the patterns painted on the skirts, and they sometimes have small accessories such as bundles, or baskets in their hands.

  • Figurines from 10 to 15 cm - with larger accessories, bundles, baskets or bouquets of lavender.

  • From 18 cm upwards the santons can be dressed in costumes made from cloth - only the heads, hands and visible parts will be made from clay, the rest of the body will be sewn, and made of fabric.

  • The size of santon figurines rarely exceeds 20 centimetres, although some models can reach 30 cm. It’s possible to find several different sizes in the same nativity scene, this will allow an optical illusion, with the villagers who come from afar to offer their gifts at the manger.


PHOTO Jean mould Louis lagnel 1764-1822 Marseills (source Herodotus)


Manufacturing can be divided into two types. Up to about 8 centimetres in height, the santon comes out of the mould all in one piece.

Bigger figures are made by moulding the arms, the hats, the offerings, the accessories separately and then joining them together.


The most popular figures made are: The ox and the donkey and sheep, the angel, the shepherds, the blind man and his son, the gypsy, the farmhand, the village fool, the mayor, the priest, the monk, the magi


PHOTO Santon Lou Pistachie Santon le Boumia (Bohemian) Santon Le Ravi


Santons and crèches - Over 200 years of history in Marseille.

There is a long tradition of a santons fair being held in Marseille. It started in 1803 in the Cours Saint-Louis and has continued through the centuries regardless of plagues and wars. Initially held in the open air, from 1853 the fair was given shelter from wind and rain. From time to time the santon fair moved to different locations in Marseille and from 1897 the fair has become an annual event. Nowadays it is held in December, on the Canebière.


PHOTO: Emile Layne (1871-before 1945), the alleys of Meilhan under the snow-Archives of Marseilles



The Provencal nativity scene.

The early versions of the domestic nativity scenes only appeared in the 18th century. Typically, they were small, simple structures or glazed boxes- “chapels” to display the nativity surrounded by holy figures. It was only after the revolution that this chapel evolved into a nativity scene as we know it - mainly thanks to the invention by Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822) of raw clay santons.

The Provençal nativity scene is a Christmas nativity scene with characters traditional from Provence, the saritons (santoun, little Provençal saint) inspired by everyday local life.

The tradition is that from year to year, the nativity scene is set up shortly before Christmas only to be taken down at the beginning of February on Candlemas. These are one-of-a-kind crèches like the one in Grambois, a village perched high in the Luberon. For more than half a century, the master santon-maker Pierre Graille has taken the inhabitants of his village as models for his santons- creating his figures in the likeness of his village neighbours. They are very realistic and easily recognisable. This fabulous nativity scene has become the collective memory and archive of the village, with people long dead represented in the santon figures.


Pierre Graille Born April 25, 1915 was a santon maker, sculptor, earthenware maker, "Fallen into the passion of modelling around the age of 6-7”, while he frequented the patronage of the district of Saint-Antoine in Marseille. He died on May 4, 2014 in Grambois at the age of 99,


Church nativity scenes.

The first nativity scene is said to have been made by Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223 in Italy. It was a scene set in a stable and included the nativity characters and the animals. In the 13th century the Franciscans started to make nativity scenes with figures of the Holy Family in carved wood. After spreading to Italy and then to other countries, nativity scenes only appeared in Provence from the 17th century.

Towards the end of the 18th century, the manufacture of statuettes dressed in fabrics was recorded in Marseilles. The body of the figures was at that time most often made of wood or rough cardboard and the faces sculpted in wax. The cribs disappeared with the closing of the churches in 1793 and did not reappear until 1803.


While the first clay figurines appear created by Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822), three workshops in Marseilles gradually supplied churches and convents with nativity characters in stamped cardboard (the statue remained hollow inside) or moulded cardboard. However, plaster casting became the favoured method of production in the 19th century due to cheaper production methods for plaster casting.


During the last two thirds of the 19th century, all the churches of Provence had adopted the Provençal nativity scene using dressed puppets. Just like the ones we see today.

In the course of the 19th century, some churches displayed nativity cribs with characters with mechanical movements (like automatons). The ingenious mechanism was housed inside the cardboard bodies of the figures.




Nicolas SABOLY, Provençal composer - 1614-1671.

Nicholas Saboly was a poet, composer, choirmaster and organist. He composed many Christmas carols and his lyrics are poetic records. He often wrote in the local Provencal dialect. At the age of 21 he entered the priesthood and in 1639 he became the master of the chapel at the cathedral of Carpentras before later taking the same position in Aix-en-Provence, Nîmes, and finally at the collegiate church of Saint-Pierre-d'Avignon until his death. He is the best-known writer of the Noëls, songs in the common language celebrating the nativity. His texts are often witty and with references to Provencal life and customs.


It was customary to write the words of songs to tunes borrowed from other composers or from church hyms. Thus, only about ten melodies are thought to have been written by Nicolas Saboly for accompany his Christmas songs.

Poets of the 19th century, such as Roumanille and Frédéric Mistral drew inspiration from Saboly’s texts and his desire to perpetuate the traditions of Provence. They re-wrote “Coupo Santo” with a variation of the lyrics and rhythm to become the anthem of Provence. Many of Saboly’s compositions are still reissued today.


In the carol “La cambo me faim au” (My leg hurts) The words tell the tale of a shepherd that asks for his horse to be saddled, so that he can salute the new-born Jesus. He can’t walk there because his leg hurts. Along the way, he meets a number of people and his leg is healed when he finally sees the Christ child.

An approximate translation of the lyrics is as follows:

All shepherds, encamped in the mountains,

All shepherds, have seen the messenger,

they shouted: "Go and see him, the son of God is born!"


For my health, fevers are unhealthy,

For my health, better to avoid them

I caught a fever, and now I remain crippled


In Bethlehem, the people walking leave me behind,

People are walking and I am the last.

A boor, being laughed at,

A boor, very heavy and pot-bellied!


Courage! my white horse, keep going!

Courage! My white horse with its belly to the ground,

My white horse will lead me ahead

I bought it at the roadside from a soldier coming back from war

Cowardice is cheaper than it cost.


When I will have seen the Son of God the Father,

When I will have seen the King of heaven come,

To greet his mother, everything will be different.


I won't have any more trouble,

My leg hurts!

I won't have any more trouble,

Saddle up my horse!




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