Santon makers from Provence launch their candidacy for Unesco

An application has been launched for the traditional hand-painted figurines of Provence to be recognized by Unesco as part of the world’s cultural heritage.

This would place Christmas favorites alongside traditions such as Chinese calligraphy, Tibetan opera or “the gourmet meal of the French”.

An association has been formed to submit the application and is led by Sylvie Neveu-Prigent, descendant of the first santonnier (santonnier) from Aubagne, near Marseille, Thérèse Neveu.

According to the Unesco website.

It is a complement to the more well-known World Heritage status that is granted to cities, monuments or natural sites.

The process, however, can take years. It took ten years for the know-how of Grasse perfumery to receive the title.

The santons of Provence – from the Provençal santon meaning “little saints” – occupy a privileged place in French culture: they are sold every year on the Christmas markets, decorate the crèches of thousands of homes and watch over the gifts at the foot of the Christmas. tree on December 25.

The small hand-painted clay figurines represent the people of Provence, in their many traditional costumes and bearers of humble offerings, on their way to the Nativity. They can include local characters such as a chestnut seller, water carriers and bakers as well as the three kings, Mary and Joseph.

Sometimes humorous or topical additions are made to more traditional types of figurines, such as when a figurine maker added a yellow vest in 2019.

The president of Aix-Marseille-Provence Métropole and the Bouches-du-Rhône department, Martine Vassal, declared: “I support the members of the association Know-how of the santon-makers of Provence who uphold the values, identity and history of Provence.

“This approach of registering the art of the santon in the intangible cultural heritage of Unesco would pay tribute to a know-how which is the pride of our territory and which goes far beyond our borders.”

Nativity scenes have been around for centuries, but the making and display of the figurines became an act of rebellion in the late 18th century when churches were closed and mass was suppressed during the French Revolution.

People made them at home – at the risk of the guillotine – from materials such as cloth or paper mache (a mixture of paper and paste).

The Marseilles sculptor Jean-Louis Lagnel made the first clay figurine – the santon that we know today, although at the time it did not bear that name – in 1797 because he wanted them to be affordable for the general public. At the time, figurines were luxury items made of glass or porcelain.

The first santon fair took place in Marseille in 1803 on the Cours Saint-Louis. Since then, the popularity of santons has grown enormously and they are now sold by the thousands in markets across the country, particularly in Provence.

Today, the manufacture of figurines is often a family business passed down from generation to generation.

Usually a santonnier will sculpt a figurine out of clay and make a two-part plaster cast of it, which he will then use to make other figurines.

They are dried for several weeks, baked and painted by hand.

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