For Donato Chiusano of Sant’Angelo dei Lombardi, creating beautiful presepi (Italian manger scenes) is more than a passion—it is a way to give glory to Christ all year long.
I first met Donato last December when I saw one of his beautiful creations on a Facebook group, “Irpinia Terra di Mille Tradizioni.” I was struck by the extreme craftsmanship in his work and how much he enjoyed creating different representations of the birth of Jesus. I ordered a large presepio for my dining room and a smaller lantern for my mother. Over the past year, I have even purchased a few as gifts for the people most special to me. Every presepio is unique, with a different story to tell.
When I asked him how he came to create these miniature worlds, Donato explained that he has loved his craft since childhood. His grandfather used to create presepi every Christmas season, and he would watch him at work. In 1983, one of Donato’s friends asked him to create a small presepio. “From that day on, I haven’t stopped,” he said.
The presepio tradition in Italy dates to 1223, when St. Francis of Assisi created the first one in Greccio, Italy. This presepio used living people and animals, but, when word spread about what St. Francis did, churches and homes across Italy and Europe began creating their versions with figurines in place of the live figures. The word presepio comes from the Latin word praesepe, which means “crib.”
In Naples during the 1700s, aristocrats hired sculptors and painters to create figures and scenes for presepi. These elaborate designs featured a variety of scenes, such as life in Jerusalem, as well as scenes from Neapolitan life, from bread makers to chestnut roasters and everything in between. These presepi allowed people to immerse themselves into the nativity of Christ, as common people mingled with the Holy Family, the Magi, and others present on that day.
“The presepio symbolizes joy and love,” Donato said. “It is an art form that anyone can appreciate because of its cultural and historical value. The presepio also has a religious meaning because it is a symbol representing the birth of our Savior Jesus Christ.”
Donato explained that there are three different possible themes for his presepi. First, there is the Palestinian version, representing the area around Bethlehem, where Jesus was born. The popular version represents daily life, while the Neapolitan version features the Holy Family with Baby Jesus’s birth depicted in an ancient church. Donato’s favorite version is the Palestinian version because of its close connection to the actual events surrounding Christ’s birth.
Donato has exhibited his presepi throughout the world, in places such as Los Angeles, Atlanta, Tokyo, Berlin, Rome, Milan, and Florence. In 2003, he won a presepio competition in Milan, and in 2006 he finished third in an international presepio competition held in Rome. Besides creating presepi, he also creates sacred art on commission.
“This work relaxes me and gives me peace,” he said. “It allows me to live in harmony with others, especially our Lord. It’s a passion that gives me joy and happiness”
Donato creates his presepi year-round. During the holiday season, he travels to schools within the Province of Avellino to teach about the art of the presepio, including its history.
“I hope I can keep doing this work for a long time because it is truly my passion,” he said. “When I end up retiring, I hope I can leave it to an apprentice who is just as passionate as I am for this humble and precious tradition.”
Learn more about Donato Chiusano on his Facebook page, Donato Presepi.