Usually it's the religious icons that find their places in architectural recesses here, but in the south of France it's not surprising to see a santon provençal, this one a shepherd, in a small alcove above the front door.
Santons de Provence are brightly painted clay figurines used to create crèches de Noël. Part of their charm of these nativity scenes is that there are not only the holy principals, but also figurines representing all of the trades of a provençal village, from miller to basket weaver. (My own collection includes the mayor of the village and a bohemian!)
A bit of history
Franciscan monks introduced enacting living nativity scenes at Midnight Mass to Provence in the 13th century. When these were prohibited during the 18th-century French revolution, faithful individuals of Marseilles took to fabricating their own nativity scenes, inviting others to admire them in their homes. The practice became widespread, giving birth to the small industry of modeling santons.
Every year during the month of December a fair is held in Marseilles, the historic capital of santons, to display and sell works of France's forty leading santonniers.
un santon: a figurine or small personage coming from the word santoun, little saint
un santonnier: a maker of santons
une crèche: a model of the the scene representing the birth of Jesus, displayed in homes or public places at Christmas, a nativity scene
Provence: former province of southeastern France on the Mediterranean coast, east of the Rhone River
une niche: a shallow recess, often used to display a statue or ornament
un berger: a shepherd
un métier: a trade or profession
©2011 P.B. Lecron