France: Santons (Provencal creche figurines)

Background information

Santon means “little saint” and these figurines depicting Provencal village life are used in crèche scenes. In the traditional Provencal crèche, there are 55 different types of figurine. There are two types of santons: clay figures (santons d’argile) and clothed figures [santons habillé as seen here in these four examples.

The tradition of using such figurines goes back to the time of the French Revolution, when a Marseillais artisan Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822) first made them as a reaction to the prohibition of playing nativity scenes during the closure of the churches by the supporters of the Revolution. A tableau of the birth of Christ had been enacted by the local people at Christmas ever since the Middle Ages. The santons then completely took over portraying Christ’s nativity even after the end of the French Revolution.

The making of santons emigrated at some stage from Marseilles to Aubagne in the hills as the clay was better there. Nowadays, santons are handcrafted by families of santoniers, who hand down their craft from one generation to the next. It is a highly competitive craft, with the artisans vying for the souvenir trade. Some santoniers are highly rated, for example, Daniel Scaturro, of Aubagne, was awarded one of the highest French honours given to craftsmen, the Meilleur Ouvrier, in 1997.

The earlier santons were air-dried and so easily broken. Since the end of the 19th century the santons have been fired in a kiln (1,000°C/1,832°F), making them more robust. After baking, the figurine is then soaked in gelatine to make it harder and to give a base for the paints. The art of making santons is very much alive with special fairs (e.g. Foire des Santonniers and Biennale de l’Art Santonnier) and modern santons may also be given the visage and form of famous people.

The santon characters originally represented the people of Provence setting out to carry offerings to the new-born Christ child. These “little saints” are listed below. Since they were first made, the original cast of santon characters has been expanded to include landscape painters, jewellers, farm workers, lavender cutters, card players, dentists, and so on.

Original santon characters

Baker (Le boulanger) — with bread, baguettes, or fougasse (soft Provencal bread made of yeast, flour and olive oil).

Basket maker (Le vannier) — carrying a basket to be used as a cradle for the new-born.

Bear trainer (Le montreur d’ours ou de marmottes)

Blacksmith (Le forgeron)

Blind person (L’aveugle)

Bohemien (Lou “boumian”) — thought of as being a bad guy (Herod’s hit man)

Chimney sweep (Le ramoneur)

Drummers (Les tambourinaires) — these announce the good news, with drum and flute (galoubet)

Farm woman (La fermière) — with farm produce, such as eggs.

Farmhand (Le valet de ferme)

Farmhand (Pistachié de le “Fada”) – this figure carries food or other things as presents. However, fada means crackpot in southern French!

Fisherman (Le pêcheur)

Fishmonger (La poissonnière)

Gardener (La jardinière or porteurs et porteuses de fruits et de légumes) — with garden produce: garlic (ail), squash (courge), or Cavaillon cantaloup (melon de Cavaillon). Sometimes shown as a vegetable seller, such as a garlic seller (La marchande d’ail)

Goose herder (La gardeuse d’oies)

Hunter (Le chasseur)

Knife grinder (Le rémouleur)

Lady with fishing net (La vieille au calen) — “calen” is a net put across the canal to catch fish

Margarido on a donkey (Margarido sur son âne) – this is the only character who is not walking but riding on a donkey. She is the wife of M. Jourdan a character in the nativity play Pastorale provençale

Miller (Le meunier) — carries bags of flour from the mill.

Old couple (Les vieux or Le vieux et la vieille) — these are called Grasset and Grasseto (or Grasset et Grassette)

Shepherd and his dog (Le berger et son chein) — these are the first to arrive, with his sheep.

Snail seller (La marchande de limaçons) — “limaçon” is Provencal for “escargot”.

Spinning lady (La fileuse à la quenouille) — the “quenouille” is a distaff: a staff that holds the unspun wool from which the thread is drawn in spinning by hand.

Tinker (Le rétameur) — he repairs pots (casseroles)

Village idiot (Le ravi) — he has a long red bonnet.

Washer woman (La lavandière) — She is at the “lavoir” or the stream, washing clothes

Water carrier (Le porteur d’eau) — also called the woman with the water jar (La femme à la cruche d’eau)

Woman with baby in a cradle (La femme au berceau) — symbolises a midwife

Woman with chicken broth (La femme au bouillon de poule) — she carries a chicken in one hand and a pot of broth in the other.

Woodcutter (Le bucheron) — sometimes a woman (La femme au fagot)


Source(s) of information;; (accessed 30th January, 2012). (accessed 31st July, 2015) (accessed 31st July, 2015) (accessed 31st July, 2015)





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