Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

You Take The High Road…

with 7 comments

So I was thinking today–it’s not the best of Sundays, because Matt has to go back to school later this afternoon.  That means that I’m going to have to get into the car and drive him all the way down to New Haven, but it also means that my day is just not going to be the smooth-flow-to-cooking-dinner I like.  One of the good things about not having a “real” job is that I get a lot of days like that during the school vacations. 

This morning, I came down to find it was very cold for only the second time since summer, so I’ve made tea and cranked up the heat, and in the living room  I passed the catalogue I get sent every Christmas from a company called Leaflet Missal.  They’ve got a web site, which is


but for whatever reason,  I don’t usually go there.   They’re a good place to get certain of the more obscure Catholic books and also some really odd things I’ve never seen anywhere else, like a paper doll collection of traditional nun’s habits. 

I’ve got some odd tastes in esoterica.  I mean, you know.  What the hell. 

But what brought up Leaflet Missal this morning was one of their big offerings for the Christmas season:  nativity seasons, both small ones whole and complete and the various (and endless) parts of the bi ones.

For those of you who are used to nativity seasons being small plastic items showing Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus and maybe some sheep, trust me, they’re a much bigger deal for a lot more people.

And they are, I think, the first case in which I can find a distinction between “high” and “popular” art. 

The terms aren’t quite right, I’ll admit.  In an aristocratic age, the term “the people” wasn’t used as we use it now, and the real distinction would probably have been expressed as the difference between “gentle” and “rude.”   By “rude” the Middle Ages meant unfinished, or without polish or finesse, and I don’t think it actually occured to anybody at the time that “rude” people preferred “rude” things.

Rather, “rude” things were all that “rude” people were capable of making for themselves.  They hadn’t the intelligence or the training to create better things for themselves, and they didn’t have the money to buy such things from professionals.

The Middle Ages–or, I should say, the literate men and women of the Middle Ages who wrote about things like art–would have found it astonishing if you’d told them that “rude” people had an aesthetic all their own that they preferred to the one the “gentle” people preferred. 

And I don’t actually know if they did.  I do not live in an aristocratic age, and it’s been centuries since anybody did. 

But nativity scenes are a good place to look at the differences between high and popular art, not only in the Middle Ages, but now, because lots of people on every side of every divide are dedicated to them.

And it’s not just professing Christians.  It’s been a couple of years since I’ve been able to get into New York at Christmas, but it used to be that the Metropolitan Museum of Art erected a gigantic, two-story tall Renaissance nativity scene in the main entrance hall–the nativity scene as High Art. 

And it’s very high art indeed.  The face of the Madonna is like something out of Botticelli, with that ethereal and yet almost painfully material perfection that manages  to seem both all too human and all too divine at the same time. 

I had professors in college and graduate school who went on at length about the relationship between the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation and the development of painting in the Renaissance, and in Botticelli, you can just see it.

We do not have access, any more, to the kind of rudely carved nativity scenes ordinary men and women made for their own homes during this period, although we know that some people made them.  We’ve also lost almost all the nativity scenes that once stood in churches during this period, many of them destroyed during the more lunatic phases of the Reformation.

But we do have a thriving community of people, spanning continents, who are committed to building and designing nativity scenes, and even more people who buy their products and construct small scenes of their own without necessarily realizing that they are taking part in a worldwide movement. 

The reason the Leaflet Missal Company got me started on all this is that their Christmas catalogue contains literally page after page of figures for nativity scenes, made for both indoor and o utdoor displays, ranging from the very cheap to the quite expensive.

One of the things I’ve noticed is that nativity scenes these days are like wedding dresses. Poorer women who would normally be very careful about what they spend on clothes will spend anything at all to get exactly they want in a wedding dress, creating a market in which wedding dresses aimed at the more upscale shopper actually cost less than those aimed at their less well-heeled sistere.

Nativity scenes seem to be one of those things that people who do not ordinarily have a lot of money to spend are willing to spend large amounts on.  Leaflet Missal offers a large number of nativuty figures from a wide variety of sources, but its most popular line comes from an Italian company called Fontini. 

Fontini indoor starter sets cost anywhere from fifty or sixty dollars into the hundreds, but they’re only the beginning.  There is a rich tradition of nativity stories in in both the Catholic and Orthodox churches, stories that do not appear in the Bible but that have been part of the Christian narrative for as long as anybody can remember.

I’ve always thought that the Protestant desire to purge the Christian religion of all these things, or most of them, was misguided, but Leaflet Missal is a Catholic company, so nobody is purging anything.

A family that splurges on the Fontini eleven-piece starter at $270 gets the stable, Mary and Joseph, Jesus in the manger, the three wise men, an angel, and an assortment of animals.  They can then add to this, year after year, literally hundreds of different figures.  Most of hese cost between $20 and $30, but some can cost considerably more than that.  “Camel with blanket,” for intsance, is $50, and and “Jareth the drummer boy” is $40.

There is absolutely nothing wrong with the Fontini nativity sets.  They’re plastic, but they’re not cutesy-pie or cheap looking.  They’re not kitschy or fake.  They’re also not Botticelli, and after a while I think I may know why.

I am more and more coming to the conclusion–and boy, is this one going to get me into trouble–that a liking for high art is always an acquired taste. Some of us are drawn to it from the beginning, but all of us start out preferring Disney’s view of reality to Raphael’s. 

And with that shot over the bow, I think I’ll go listen to a little Anonymous 4.

Written by janeh

November 29th, 2009 at 8:39 am

Posted in Uncategorized

7 Responses to 'You Take The High Road…'

Subscribe to comments with RSS or TrackBack to 'You Take The High Road…'.

  1. I think maybe certain tastes are acquired, although I wouldn’t limit that to high art. The various sub-genres of rock music, beginning with the Beatles, if not slightly earliers, are something I have never been able to acquire a taste for, although when I was a teenager, I made some effort to try. OK, I attended part of one rock concert, and left partway through when the volume and vibrations made my stomach churn and I thought I might vomit. I came tolerate some jazz, which I initially disliked, because a lot was played on a radio program I liked, and have never completely lost my early tastes for folk, old-fashioned country, and some of the more Victorian (and earlier) hymns you don’t hear so much any more, plus of course Gilbert and Sullivan…

    But nativity sets. I’ve always loved them, perhaps because we never had one when I was a child, and they just appealed to me then maybe at least partly as something slightly exotic for a private home. I don’t think my parents had anything particularly against nativities, they just didn’t have any interest in them, perhaps because they were both from Protestant backgrounds. I got a cheap one as an adult, although I’d like to get nicer figures, expecially since a cat knocked over Joseph and he broke. But I can’t really afford the ones I’d really like, so I haven’t bothered.

    They do come in all varieties, from the cheapest kitch to high art, though. The local RC cathedral has a collection of nativities that they put on display every Advent, and when I saw it, I was expecting, if not Botticelli, Botticelli-like figures, but there was an incredible range and variety, including a lot I probably wouldn’t want to have in the house!

    I don’t know why saying that a liking for high art is always an acquired taste. I wouldn’t put it quite so strongly myself; I think some people simply become fascinated with some form of high art the first time they’re exposed to it, and that initial liking doesn’t seem acquired at all. But it takes exposure and practice/experience to develop a liking for a lot of things, from coffee to opera.


    29 Nov 09 at 9:50 am

  2. I have a Fontanini 5″ set myself, but the outlay was quite moderate, to my way of thinking–Your basic Holy Family with manger for $10 in an Army thrift shop, still in shrink wrap–probably $30 retail in 1986–built up at about $10 an item–camels about $15–and an item a year. (Someone in a decent-size shopping mall will generally sell them.) Obviously the dollar has fallen relative to the euro, but those prices still sound inflated.
    We stopped at what I think of as “American Standard”–Holy Family in stable with ox, three kings, three camels, three shepherds, flock of sheep and dog: one angel overhead. The total cost might be $150-$200, but the cost in any one year was seldom more than lunch in the mall for two people. Production in the same style and scale year after year offers real advantages over the cheap “one-off” where you can never replace the broken or missing piece. (Naturally, the Fontanini is all in storage and I’ll be using a cast in one piece from the Dollar General until I retire and get out of the apartment.)
    The manger scenes may have gone “generic Christian” at least in America, by the way. I’m related to pretty well the whole Protestant spectrum, and I can’t remember visiting anyone decorated for the Holidays who didn’t have a manger scene up, just as those with no German blood keep putting up fir trees with lights in the manner of Martin Luther. Holidays shed an interesting light on American assimilation.

    On the more general question of taste, there seems to be a body of evidence that we respond well and possibly instinctively to certain things, from landscapes to various features of the opposite sex. And there is a range of things we have trouble with but can eventually get used to–or perhaps addicted to–such as cigarettes and coffee.

    I suppose the first question would be whether some people take to particular aspects of the “high culture” on first exposure. If not, and the attitude does change, is this the result of repeated exposure or education–or, alternatively, have they been taught to DISlike the popular culture version? I’d want to see some thorough and careful studies. There might be quite a bit of variance among individuals, and the answer in graphic art might well be very different from the answer in music–and different again in dance.

    I would also point out that the “high culture” is to a degree culturally defined. Because opera, ballet, oil paintings and orchestral music are all given to “openings” in formal dress, subscriptions and state subsidies we “lump” them, but our response on a DNA level mght be quite different.

    Has anyone else seen some of the sexual attraction studies? We appear to be breeding ourselves to look more like manga.


    29 Nov 09 at 11:58 am

  3. “Because opera, ballet, oil paintings and orchestral music are all given to “openings” in formal dress, subscriptions and state subsidies we “lump” them, but our response on a DNA level mght be quite different.”

    And different at different times, too. I used to hate opera, not that I’d ever attended any; I was basing my opinions on recordings of operatic soprano arias, which are perhaps not exactly the most accessible forms of music. Recently, I decided more or less on impulse, to try out one of the HD ‘Met at the Movies’ productions, and now consider it a nice treat to attend – opera at about $25 a seat, with popcorn and soft drinks on offer! I can assure you no one dresses up! And I’m quite spoiled for choice in other concerts, since we have a music school, an active music and arts scene, and far more concerts than I can manage to attend.

    But in spite of the cheapness and accessibility of these events (amateur choral or instrumental performances are far cheaper than the opera), I have to admit it’s still a minority taste, with most of my contemporaries paying far more for the latest aging rocker to tour here and much of the younger crowd headed out for a bar with a local band that might play anything from heavy metal to Celtic rock stuff.

    But I’m wandering a bit, thinking of the delights to come and how many I can afford/squeeze into my schedule. Christmas is a particularly good time of year for music.

    I’m saying that sometimes people’s tastes change over time. Some people might adore opera from childhood, others learn to like it as adults and yet others had it spoiled for them by bad experiences, and finally, you just have those who find it extremely tedious no matter how well it is presented and introduced. But I suspect opera takes some willingness to expose oneself to it long enough to have a chance to appreciate it, and that many people nowadays don’t. I remember reading some comment years ago from some teacher or other who insisted that children should be exposed to very simple rhythms. I think one example of what one should NOT let children listen to because it’s too fast and complex was something associated with a lot of the folk music I’ve adored since childhood – 6/8, maybe? – but if you’ve never heard much besides 4/4 (with a strong drum beat; you need both melody and rhythm, but I much prefer melody) you can’t expect them to instantly enjoy more complex forms.


    29 Nov 09 at 1:20 pm

  4. I don’t think it’s just high art that is an acquired taste. There was a scene in one of Michener’s stories where he explained how he learned French through total immersion until it suddenly clicked and was a language, and then he says he did the same thing with rock music. So I tried it myself, first with jazz and later with rap. You have to learn the vernacular in order to understand an art form. So you have to be willing to expose yourself to it long enough to learn the vernacular.



    29 Nov 09 at 2:24 pm

  5. The history of representations of the nativity interests me much more than whether they’re considered high art or not. Coming from a twenty year exposure to Church of Christ indoctrination that doesn’t allow the celebration of Christmas as a religious holiday, although they believe the virgin birth, etc, nowhere in the Bible does it stipulate Christ was born on December 25. It takes the “no graven images” commandment to the extreme–no stained glass windows with any religious paintings, no statuary, no crosses, I was enthralled the first time I entered a liturgical church never mind a Catholic church. And although I had certainly seen nativity scenes and even had a small one at my house (my mother was a former Baptist who refused to attend C of C services)I never knew exactly where or when they began. I know now, of course, the St Francis of Assisi story from the 13th century but I’ve also read somewhere that nativity scenes preceded that and his efforts were to simplify the whole thing rather than making it so elaborate. If anyone knows this, please enlighten.


    29 Nov 09 at 5:58 pm

  6. Commemorating Christ’s birth goes back a long, long way in Christian tradition, although I don’t think anyone…OK, anyone who’s actually looked into the subject…thinks it actually occurred on December 25. I don’t know why some people (not you, jem) get all worked up about December 25th being the actual date. It’s hardly unknown to pick a date to commemorate something that either happened on another date or happened over a lengthy period. Look at all the holidays that are moved to Mondays or Fridays to make a long weekend!

    Even in denominations that observe Christmas, it was a relatively minor religious holiday until the last century or so – Easter, of course, is the big one. The big party at midwinter was more a way of cheering up at a very dark and depressing time of year than a religious tribute – as it still is.

    I don’t know anything much about the Church of Christ, which doesn’t seem to have many if any members in my part of the world, but when I was a child, one spouse in a local family converted to a different denomination with similar ideas about Christmas, and those ideas appear to have caused as much strife within the family as the fact of the conversion itself, since there were young children in the family.


    30 Nov 09 at 7:15 am

  7. I am posting late – but my thoughts belong here, so I’ll post them now and here. I have a nativity scene we purchased in Mexico. It isn’t a great piece, but it has the redeeming factor that baby Jesus can be removed from the manger. In our family, the baby isn’t born until Christmas morning – part of the ritual is finding the baby and putting him in the manger. Alas, I cannot find another such set to give to my children.

    I’ve seen the Sistine Chaple (twice). No one ever says “I don’t get it” or “I don’t like it.” Not all opera is great. Just like other art forms, there is good and bad. My problem is that I hear others say they don’t like opera – yet they have never listened to any great opera. According to my students “The Phantom of the Opera” is Opera.


    1 Dec 09 at 12:29 pm

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Bad Behavior has blocked 188 access attempts in the last 7 days.