Marseille Stories and Tips

Marcel Carbonel Santons and Santon Museum

47 rue Neuve Ste.-Catherine, Marseille
Open 10am-12:30pm and 2 to 6:30pm, Tuesday through Saturday

Marcel Carbonel has a shop and museum devoted entirely to santons, traditional Provençal crèche (nativity scene) figurines. The museum is free and is reached by walking through the shop to the back, where there is a row of glass cases against the back wall and a loft above with another row of glass cases, all holding a variety of santons collected by Marcel Carbonel. Free guided tours of the workshop (usually in French; call ahead to request English) are available Tuesdays and Thursdays at 2:30.

The people of Provence have set up outdoor crèches at Christmas time for centuries. The santon tradition is rooted in the post-Revolutionary period, when midnight masses and crèches were forbidden by law. Unwilling to abandon their tradition, people began to make "little saints" for display in their homes. They didn’t stop with the holy family, angels, shepherds, and Magi, however. They included ordinary people: the butcher, the baker, the candlestick maker, merchants and musicians, farmers and fishermen, priests and nuns, hunters and housewives. Each figure bears an offering from their craft or trade.

There are two basic types of santons, santons d'argile made entirely of clay and santons habilles, dressed clay figures. Clay santons range from an inch or so tall to about six inches tall, while the larger dressed santons range from six to 12 inches tall. Both are characterized by great attention to detail. The traditional participants in the stable scene are portrayed in robes, while the village folk wear the typical dress of their occupation and place. A variety of stables and village buildings are also available.

Unfortunately, santons are not cheap. I selected several for a friend of mine, with the tallest figures being about 2.5 inches tall. The handpainted details were carefully rendered, down to the patches on the shepherd’s pants and the gold and silver spangles on the Magi’s robes. I bought Mary, Joseph, Jesus in the manager, an angel, the three Magi, a shepherd, two sheep, a cow, and a donkey for about €120, and they threw in a lamb for free. When I mentioned that my purchase for pour une amie, they carefully rolled each figure into bubble wrap, packed them in a sturdy cardboard box, and wrapped them up in maroon paper. Everything arrived home in perfect condition, even after bouncing around on my travels for two weeks.

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