ERIE, Pennsylvania — If you happen to be walking west on West Eighth Street by the Gannon University bookstore on your left, huddled inside your coat, watching your feet on the ice, take a second to look up.
Right there in the window, you’ll find a little bit of Christmas magic.
A handmade, tiny nativity scene, complete with flying angels, is nestled into a “barn” with all the requisite items: a manger, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, animals, Magi and a bright star that might make you feel a bit warmer inside.
The scene was created by Michael DeSanctis, a fine arts, pastoral studies and theology professor at Gannon.
DeSanctis, 60, has spent countless hours making nativity scenes since 1990 but has been displaying a new one each year at the bookstore since either 2012 or 2013. No one can quite remember.
“To me, it’s not so much a hobby as a ministry,” DeSanctis said about making the scenes.
Displaying his newest nativity scene became a Christmas tradition at the bookstore after a conversation with manager Amber Cook.
“He’s a professor and we had an Advent wreath of his and we got to talking about his nativity scenes,” Cook said. “And we had this great window space” (in the 100 block of West Eighth between Peach and Sassafras streets.) “It just made sense.”
She said she looks forward to the new installation every year.
“Each year it’s something different and I get excited to see whatever he’ll come up with this year,” Cook said. “People love to see it when they walk by.”
Several of DeSanctis’ past nativity scenes are also on display in a small gallery inside First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, 250 W. Seventh St. They include posters that describe how he built them.
DeSanctis said he works on one nativity scene all year, sometimes several hours a day, built around figurines he salvages from churches that close or replace older scenes. He tries to make as much of each scene as possible from repurposed materials. The shell of this year’s nativity scene started life as a Nabisco display box at Giant Eagle, he said, with a laugh.
You’d never know. It’s been painted and shaped and adorned and added onto until it resembles an intricately detailed gothic stable (complete with a DeSanctis crest) you might expect to see in “Game of Thrones.”
Inside, he rigged a small motor that makes the angels spin. The angels themselves are made from toy Army men, “suggesting pounding swords into plowshares,” DeSanctis said.
Each of his nativity scenes is vastly different. He sets the scenes in various regions of the world, such as Palestine with mud walls, baskets, blankets suggesting the Middle East; a woodland cave, in which he said some interpretations hold that Christ’s birth took place; a tropical island complete with a hand-made palm tree; and a northern tundra, including stick huts covered with icicles made from melted plastic forks.
“Part of the fascination for me is that every culture applies the birth of Christ to its own setting,” DeSanctis said. “So they aren’t attempts at historical (representation), but I consider them symbolic at points beyond themselves.”
“I usually begin with an idea that I draw,” he said. “Then I go from sketches to the conceptual,” where he has to figure out how to create what’s in his head. “Then I go from conceptual to fabrication.”
All year, as he works on the scenes, he has to keep in mind that it will have to be disassembled to make the trek to its display space.
“They have to be engineered to move from my studio,” DeSanctis said.
DeSanctis’ grandfather was a church decorator in Italy, he said, and taught him statue repair and gold leaf. DeSanctis said he thought he’d go into that and got a master’s degree in fine arts. Then he changed his mind and wanted to be a printmaker.
“I wanted to draw,” he said. But eventually, with his grandfather’s teachings in the back of his mind, his own training and intellectual curiosity, landing a professorship in fine arts, pastoral studies and theology, with a side hustle making nativity scenes, DeSanctis has been able to harness all of his interests.
This summer, he moved into a new house and had several of these scenes to take with him. A friend, Seph Kumer, who happens to be the director of community engagement of First Presbyterian Church of the Covenant, asked if he could display them in the church’s gallery during Advent.
“I think the amazing craftsmanship, and that each is unique, that they take a year to construct, is a gift to the community,” Kumer said. “It helps to feel how real (Christ’s birth) is. It’s our imagination that creates the nativity,” Kumer said. “And every culture in every time sees (Christ’s birth) through their own lens.”
For those lucky enough to see his nativities, DeSanctis provides plenty of fascinating new lenses to try.
Information from: Erie Times-News.