Every husband comes with baggage. Some have sports fixations or Blackberry addictions or children from other marriages, but me, I have the little saints. Millers and bakers, fishermen and bear trainers, village idiots and water carriers, you name it, I’ve got it, and it was always thus. It’s not everyone who can boast a fascination with “santons” (the word comes from santouon which means ‘little saint’ in Provencal), the 70 millimetre high, hand painted clay figures representing 19th century Provencal characters. It’s really not as kinky as it sounds. Having spent time as a child in Marseille, my husband and his whole family acquired a passion for collecting santons, which actually began as a popular act of resistance to the closing of churches during the French Revolution.
Before the French Revolution, crèches were big business in Provence. Churches put on magnificent nativity displays and people flocked to see them. With the closing of the churches, the population was denied access to their beloved crèches and perhaps more importantly, crèche makers had no work. Along came Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822) from Marseilles who seized the market opportunity and began to make figures for people to display in their homes at affordable prices. Using the fine clay from Marseille and Aubagne (10 miles down the road) Lagnel and his followers perfected a technique of using small molds, the casts from which would then be hand painted. As these were crèches “for the people”, santon makers looked to local characters, trades and activities for inspiration. The idea for crèches which used ordinary people on their way to pay homage to the Holy Family was an instant success, with santon fairs springing up throughout the region. The largest and oldest of these fairs, founded in 1803, still exists and can be visited in Marseille from Advent through Epiphany.
Today, the ancient art of santon making is lovingly practiced in workshops across Provence and for visitors to the region, santon shopping presents the rare opportunity to bring home something that is really made in the region instead of China and is a small work of art in its own right. The santon you buy today is made using the same techniques that have been practised for centuries. There are hundreds of different figures, animals and accessories from which to choose. Most families add a piece or two every year and santon collections are considered family heirlooms which are passed down lovingly from parent to child.
For the uninitiated, there are a few aspects of santon collecting that could seem confusing. First, you need to decide whether you are interested in the “santons d’argile” which are the hand painted clay figures that come in six different sizes ranging from 1- 6 inches or the “santons habilles” which are more like small dolls dressed in cloth and carrying implements such as baskets and fishing nets. To a degree, what you are willing to spend will drive the decision. No santon is cheap, there’s too much hand labour for that, but the price varies a lot depending on the size. A woman from Arles, for example, costs €14.45 in Size #2 and €89 in Size #5. In case you were wondering, the most popular size and type for French collectors is the “santons d’argile” in Size #2.
For anyone interested in purchasing a crèche, a good place to start is at one of the workshops which offer visitors the chance to watch the santons being made as well as having sales outlets. One of the oldest and most famous santon makers, Marcel Carbonel, has a workshop, boutique and museum in Marseille, along with another store on the main square in Aubagne. You can visit the santon workshops and boutiques any time during the year. The best time to shop for santons is during Advent when the fairs are in full swing. My recommendation would be to make a weekend of it, staying at the wonderful Bastide Relais de la Magdeleine which is just outside of Marseille and close to Aubagne where you can eat and shop to your hearts content. If you happen to be in Paris, there are plenty of santons and accessories for sale at the religious shops on the square next to the St Sulpice cathedral. Most of the major workshops also sell from their internet sites.
On our recent trip to Provence, we made the pilgrimage to Aubagne in pursuit of this year’s additions. We bought a woman with lavender, Monsieur Jourdan, one of the characters from the Maurel ‘Pastoral’ and a woman with snails. We spent an interesting morning discussing santons with the lady running the Marcel Carbonel shop and in addition to being introduced to the newest pieces in Carbonel’s collection, we also know what Madame thought of the weather this summer, how it impacted the trade and where Madame will be taking her long deserved holiday. In roughly two months time, these new members of our santon family will join dozens of others who will be arranged and rearranged around the Hedges dining room because it is always difficult to decide if the brigande should be next to the woman with a chicken or the one with the keg. As for husbands with baggage, I’m glad I went for the one who brought along an entire village of little saints.
Santons in Marseille
Cabanon des Accoules
Santons in Aubagne
Lei Santoun Castelin Peirano
Santons scaturro Daniel
Santons in Aix en Provence
Most of the workshops and boutiques are closed on Mondays