Italian-style manger for Jesus

Updated: 26 December, 2019 13:02 IST | Jane Borges | Mumbai

Young parishioners at the six-month-old St Jude Church in Malad are going back in time to create a one-of-a-kind Christmas crib, with a village and river, using stone colours, egg white, tree bark and wax

Prithvi Mani, 12, painting a door for a village home
Prithvi Mani, 12, painting a door for a village home

It was at the suggestion of an Italian friend that a member of the clergy at St Jude Church in Malad East, first typed "Presepi Di Antonio Pigozzi" on The search led him to a series of tutorial videos on cribs (presepi in Italian) by noted artist Antonio Pigozzi. "Generally, artists don't reveal their secrets," he says. "Antonio is different. He wants to share his learnings with the world. His techniques are old-school and unconventional, but the final work is as good as real."

Young members of the parish have spent the last two months poring over their hour-long tutorials to recreate a one-of-a-kind traditional crib, comprising four roofed houses to show the city of Bethlehem, and a manger, where a figure of the new-born Jesus Christ along with his parents, Joseph and Mary, will eventually be placed.

Angela Naidu, 12, painting a door for a village home

The crib, like the decoration of the tree, is important to the Christmas tradition. "It represents the Nativity scene, or the birth of Jesus Christ. It is the most significant part of the celebration," says 25-year-old Jubin Thomas, who with the help of the clergy, is rallying kids to build this scale model. "You will find one in every church and Christian home," he adds. Thomas has been following Pigozzi's work for long; not understanding Italian has hardly come in the way. "We watch more, and hear less," he says, with a quiet smile.

It's also the first time that the kids are attempting a complex model, which Thomas says, can be viewed from different perspectives. That the parish, comprising 800 members, moved into a newly-built church this year, only calls for a bigger celebration. "We also have more space to experiment with a larger crib."

It's around 8 pm on a Tuesday evening, when we join the kids for a lesson, on the fourth floor of their church. The team is already two days past their deadline of December 15. And while they are in a hurry to complete the crib, they will not rush. "You don't want to mess it up," says Thomas.

Jubin Thomas has helmed the crib-making project along with younger parishioners of St Jude Church in Malad East. Pics/Anurag Ahire
Jubin Thomas has helmed the crib-making project along with younger parishioners of St Jude Church in Malad East. Pics/Anurag Ahire

On their work-station are three air-tight bottles of different earthy-coloured powders. "This is our paint," says another clergy member. "We made these after grinding stones that we found at the St Pius X College in Goregaon." The stone, in colours of red, green, brown and ochre, is filed using a filer inside a bucket of water. When the sediments settle below, the bucket is left out in the sun for the water to evaporate. What remains is a dry powder-like substance, which when mixed with egg wash (one part egg yolk and four to five parts of water), becomes natural paint. The water can alternately be replaced with white wine, to help preserve the colours longer. "This sort of paint is traditionally used in Christian art," says Thomas. "If made well, it can last for centuries. Water colours fade easily and kill the natural look."

For the structure, the team chose polystyrene, over the non-biodegradable thermocol. "It is usually used for insulation in ceilings. It's a fantastic material, because it is light, strong and can be shaped as you wish," says Thomas. "You can cut it into thin sheets or thick ones. It's best for carving." The team brainstormed for a week over the sort of structure they wanted to make. After multiple drawings and blueprints, they decided to reimagine a fortified village, where Jesus was born. A river will be made from melted wax or super glue.

The tools they are working with, are also unusual. They have four different kinds of blades, one of which is used for cataract surgeries. "We saw this on YouTube," says Thomas. It is used to make cuts on polystyrene to create the brick-wall effect, and carve lines on the doors and windows. Seventeen-year-old Lavina Lobo, a talented artist from the parish, was made in-charge of this task. "When you use brown paint on these doors, it looks like wood," says Prithvi Mani, a 12-year-old, who is working on a crib for the first time. The grooves between the bricks are later filled with POP and coffee residue. Additionally, a coat of egg white is applied to increase the shelf life of the colours. The sharper EX saw blade, otherwise used on metal, is used to cut polystyrene into different shapes.

The roofs of these structures are made with chips from the dried bark of a tree, and from thin slices of polystyrene. Shankar, a help at the church, has been hammering away at the polystyrene all morning, to flatten it. "It takes an entire day," he says. For the last two months, this team has been consumed by the crib-making at St Jude. "It might seem like a time-consuming exercise, but it's an excellent opportunity for community-building," says Thomas. "We hope to recreate something grand." Rome, after all, wasn't built in a day. Bethlehem surely deserves a little more, they laugh.

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First Published: 22 December, 2019 07:54 IST

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