Arts & Culture

Beyond Bethlehem: Elaborate Nativity scene on display at National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library

A Nativity scene depicting Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus is seen on display as a part of the “Bethlehem and Beyond” exhibit at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids.
A Nativity scene depicting Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus is seen on display as a part of the “Bethlehem and Beyond” exhibit at the National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library in Cedar Rapids.
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CEDAR RAPIDS — For centuries, Czech and Slovak people have decorated for the Christmas holiday with elaborate Nativity scenes.

These include the expected tableau of baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph surrounded by Wise Men, shepherds and barnyard animals, but beyond that traditional crèche scene are carvings of everyday Czechs going about their lives and carefully miniaturized buildings from humble cottages to elaborate castles and cathedrals.

“It’s really a lot of buildings and figures that don’t have anything to do with the holy family,” said National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library curator Stefanie Kohn. “Before German Christmas trees became popular, this was the traditional symbol of the holidays.”

The oldest mention of a Czech Nativity display is from 1562, Kohn said. They were exhibited in churches, individual homes and village squares. Some were large enough to take over entire rooms when fully assembled.

One such scene, all donated by one family, is on display now at the museum, the first time the museum has shown the pieces. They take up the entirety of the museum’s Smith Gallery, where, “Bethlehem and Beyond: The Nativity Scene” will be on display through Feb. 2.

Kim Boyce of Cedar Rapids facilitated the donation from her family, which displayed parts of the Nativity scene for years. Her great-great grandmother, Marie Josefina Korejzova Wimmer, made many of the pieces in the display. She was born in the Prague area of what is now the Czech Republic and brought a small Nativity set with her when she moved to the United States. Then she started adding to it, making additional pieces over the years.

“Anytime she needed a tool, my great-great grandfather would make her the tool she needed to make what she needed to carve the pieces,” Boyce said.

Boyce’s grandmother, Georgiana Zmolek, used to have the pieces but couldn’t keep them when she downsized a few years ago.

“We didn’t want to split the collection up,” her daughter, Boyce’s aunt Holly Kienlen said. “We thought it should be in a museum somewhere ... It is old, and it is part of our family’s legacy.”

They always referred to the display as jeslicky, the Czech word for the Nativity scene.

“It was something that was in the family. It was just nice to have it out and to remember them, the people that did the work,” Zmolek said. “A lot of work went into it. I just hope people can understand that this is what people used to do.”

The oldest pieces in the collection, the ones that Wimmer brought with her to the United States, are 150-years-old, Kohn said. The entire collection arrived at the museum in 44 boxes, she said. Some of the buildings originally had moving parts — clock towers with rotating figures or bell ropes. The whimsical carved figures include everything from farmers carrying livestock to neighbors listening in at each others’ windows to priests and nuns set up outside an intricately carved church, which is complete with tiny skeletons carved into crenelations on the towers.

“It’s very elaborate and very fragile,” Kohn said. “I hope people have an appreciation for all the work and dedication that went into these carvings.”

If You Go

• What: “Bethlehem and Beyond: The Nativity Scene”

• Where: National Czech & Slovak Museum & Library, 1400 Inspiration Place SW, Cedar Rapids

• When: Through Feb. 2

• Details: (319) 362-8500, ncsml.org

Comments: (319) 398-8339; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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