Bucks County Company Mines the “True Meaning” of Christmas with One-of-a-Kind Works
By Wendy Greenberg
Michael Stumpf, who has been a photographer, banking executive, ad agency owner, and community leader, cherished his childhood F. W. Woolworth Nativity scene into adulthood. When it fell apart from age, he and his daughter built one of their own design.
Some years later, A.J. DiAntonio, who was captivated by Nativity scenes and had amassed an impressive Christmas collection, left a Hollywood production career and returned to the Pennsylvania suburbs where he grew up.
The two met four years ago and, for fun, decided to work on a crèche together. Seeing the possibilities, they were as excited as two kids at Christmas.
Stumpf’s and DiAntonio’s Navidad Nativities, based in Bucks County, Pa., has tapped into a growing and appreciative market intent on celebrating “the true meaning of Christmas.”
It is said that in 1223 in the hills of Umbria, St. Francis of Assisi arranged the first Nativity scene. By the 18th century in Naples, Nativity scenes had come to be known for artistic excellence. The Nativity scene’s role in paying homage to the birth of Jesus Christ has inspired countless scenes worldwide, but on this side of the Atlantic, Stumpf and DiAntonio have elevated the tradition with custom designs, dramatic lighting, and thoughtful artistry.
The designing duo work from a pastoral studio called the Sanctuary Atelier behind Stumpf’s Buckingham, Pa., home. There, often to the sound of Christmas music — at anytime of the year — for inspiration, each brings his particular skills to the collaboration.
“We work well together,” said DiAntonio. “It happens so synergistically. I might be carving a window while Michael is painting a backdrop. We found each other’s niche. We could each do our own designs, but in collaboration it will look better.”
Each scene begins with a theme: an Irish cathedral as a tribute to Ireland; the American Southwest; “classic” style, which suggests Roman influence; or Bethlehem, which depicts Judean architecture. Many are custom designs which reflect a family’s persona using Nativity figures from the family itself.
“We design settings that evoke the meaning of the birth of Christ,” DiAntonio said. “There is a symbolism, a purpose, to what we do. Here was a child (Christ) who was born in the most humble of circumstances, who was worshipped by peasants and kings alike, all equal in the eyes of the Lord.”
The lighting is dramatic but respectful. “How we light these pieces is important,” explained DiAntonio, who has worked extensively with set designers. For example, he described small LED lighting commonly used in model railroads. “It bounces off the colors of the pieces.”
Scenes are enhanced by the small details: gnarled trees made from copper wire or spun hemp, roofs thatched with broom needles, backdrops painted by artist Stumpf, small rugs, and carved wood figures with realistic gestures and facial expressions. Attention is paid to architecture like doorways, arches, and rooflines. In addition to their own artistic skills, X-Acto knives, Dremel drills, spackling paste that resembles stucco, and hot glue are essential.
Navidad builds about 20 presepios, as they are called in Italy, for collectors, churches, and families each year. DiAntonio and Stumpf travel regularly to Europe to find figurines, and Stumpf has also designed for Fontanini, one of the largest producers of Nativity figures in the world. Each Navidad scene takes about 30 to 40 hours of labor, not including discussion with clients to make each one personal. They build to size and consider the room in which the final piece will be displayed. The finished scenes, with figures, have ranged in cost from $900 to $10,000.
Getting to this point took several decades. Stumpf described what he believes was the beginning. “In the 1980s, we had a Nativity scene from F.W. Woolworth Company,” he said. “It was cardboard with plaster figures, but I used to like changing the look with different lights and moving the figures. When it deteriorated I said to my daughter, ‘let’s build one.’ My great-great-grandfather was an architect, after all.”
At the time, Stumpf, a graduate of Bucks County Community College and a former U.S. Navy photographer, was executive vice president of a regional bank and was living in Riegelsville in rural Bucks County. “I got some rocks and added some local materials, put it on display at the bank, and called it the Bucks County Nativity Scene. People wanted me to build one for them and their friends.”
Encouraged by admirers of his scenes, he studied the history and architecture of the Nativity and learned about the pieces made by guilds in the Bavarian and Italian crèche-making regions. Friends Bob and Joyce Byers, who had their own renowned Christmas market at Byers’ Choice in Chalfont, Pa., encouraged him to do more.
By 1988 he had left the bank and founded an ad agency. The crèches took more of his time, and in 1996 he was able to visit the Atlanta Gift Market. “I wandered around and found rather decent Nativity figures but none of the settings were anything to write home about. I said to myself, ‘let’s get serious.’”
He pitched his Nativity business story to magazines, and after a 1996 piece in Country Living, a reader got in touch and offered $3,500 for one of the Nativity scenes pictured in the magazine. Hundreds of queries poured in. He began to design buildings for Roman Inc.’s Fontanini division, and began selling through Fontanini’s 5,000-plus stores as well as displaying original work in the Atlanta showrooms.
In 1999, representatives of the Vatican contacted Stumpf about designing the official Centennial crèche, but he had to turn it down because of other deadlines. He still shakes his head that he turned down the Vatican. (He also turned down a stint on Martha Stewart’s television show because he didn’t feel ready.) But at a Fort Washington, Pa., holiday show, he sold everything and won a Best in Show award. And, Navidad has a permanent presepio at Byers’ Choice, which was featured for the World Meeting of Families and Pope Francis’s visit in 2015.
DIANTONIO’S DRAMATIC INFLUENCE
Stumpf and DiAntonio forged a fast friendship and collaboration. For his part, DiAntonio, with his Hollywood production savvy, further elevated the dramatic look of the crèches. After graduating from James Madison University, DiAntonio worked in production at the Salt Lake City Olympics and then for Los Angeles’ Dakota Films, which specialized in opening segments (think Billy Crystal’s opening on the Oscar telecast). After 10 years, he said, “I had enough. It was stressful. I was tired.”
He happened to have a wide-ranging Christmas collection of nearly 400 Nativities, and met Stumpf at a Nativity event at Byers’ Choice. Shortly after, he moved near Malvern where he grew up. His day job is at a Christmas shop in Chester County.
“My obsession is somewhat out of control,” he joked. “I have no idea what spoke to me about it.I couldn’t tell you. My mother had a small papier- mâché Nativity made in India and I played with that until several figures crumbled.” He freely admits to his OCD — obsessive Christmas disorder.
GLENCAIRN AND MORE
Business began to take off. After creating a very large scene for the Byers’ Choice collection of classic 18th century Neapolitan crèche figures, Stumpf and DiAntonio were invited to visit Glencairn Museum in Bryn Athyn, Pa., where they were inspired by the architecture. “We wanted to tell the story of Glencairn and the Bryn Athyn Cathedral,” said Stumpf. Unveiling their Nativity for the New Century for the museum staff for the World Nativities exhibit, they heard a gasp and applause, and knew they had captured the essence of the architecture.
Glencairn Museum’s World Nativities exhibition presents dozens of three-dimensional Nativity scenes collected from around the world, according to curator Ed Gyllenhaal, who said that, “for many Christians the Nativity scene is a meaningful expression of religious faith, providing a compelling visual focus during the Christmas.” World Nativities shows how artisans adapt the Nativity scene to represent their own spiritual, intellectual, cultural, and regional environments.
World Nativities at Glencairn Museum runs from November 24 through January 7, 2018.
The Museum is open from daily from noon to 4:30PM; closed December 11-12, and 24-25. There is a suggested $5 donation to World Nativities and a second exhibition, Do You See What I See? Imagery from Nativity Scenes (same dates and times).
The future of Navidad Nativities? More of the past.
In Italy, it is believed Nativities should be relevant today, Stumpf noted, and he and DiAntonio plan more engaging and dynamic settings that elevate the tradition. They still want to build a Nativity scene inspired by the Church of the Nativity in Jerusalem. And who knows what inspiration their trips to Austria, Germany, and Italy will bring.
“The art is important,” says Stumpf. “People and ideas come and go, but art that inspires the heart lasts.”
Navidad Nativities can be reached at 215.794.0625 and 267.884.3108, or view work at www.navidadnativities.com.