The santonniers of Provence launch their candidacy for UNESCO recognition


A call for tenders has been launched for the traditional hand-painted santons of Provence to be recognized by Unesco as world cultural heritage.

This would place Christmas favorites alongside traditions such as Chinese calligraphy, Tibetan opera, or “the gourmet meal of the French”.

An association was formed to submit the file and is led by Sylvie Neveu-Prigent, descendant of the first santonnier (Santon) from Aubagne, near Marseille, Thérèse Neveu.

Inscription on the intangible cultural heritage lists “helps to raise awareness among citizens and governments about heritage preservation” and may enable the country to receive “financial assistance and expert advice from the World Heritage Committee to support them. preservation activities of its sites “, according to the Unesco site.

It is a complement to the more well-known world heritage status which is granted to cities, monuments or natural sites.

However, the process can take years. It took ten years for the expertise of Grasse perfumery to receive the title.

The santons de Provence – from the Provencal santon meaning “little saints” – hold a very popular place in French culture: they are sold every year on Christmas markets, decorate cribs in thousands of homes and watch over the gifts at the foot. of the Christmas tree on December 25.

The small hand-painted terracotta figurines represent the Provençals, in their many traditional costumes and carrying humble offerings, on their way to the Nativity. They can include local figures such as a chestnut merchant, water carriers and bakers as well as the three kings, Mary and Joseph.

Sometimes humorous or topical additions are made to more traditional types of santons, like when a santon maker added a yellow vest in 2019.

The president of Aix-Marseille-Provence Métropole and of the Bouches-du-Rhône department, Martine Vassal, declared: “I support the members of the association Know-how of the santonniers of Provence which carry high the values, the identity and the history of Provence.

“This process of registering Santon art in Unesco’s intangible cultural heritage would pay tribute to a know-how which is the pride of our territory and which goes far beyond our borders.

Nativity scenes have been around for centuries, but the making and display of figurines became an act of rebellion at the end of the 18th century, when churches were closed and Mass was suppressed during the French Revolution.

People made them at home – at the risk of the guillotine – from materials such as fabric or paper mache (a mixture of paper and dough).

The Marseille sculptor Jean-Louis Lagnel made the first terracotta figurine – the santon that we know today, although at the time it did not have that name – in 1797 because he wanted them to be affordable to the general public. At the time, figurines were luxury items made of glass or porcelain.

The first santon fair took place in Marseille in 1803 on the Cours Saint-Louis. Since then, the popularity of santons has grown tremendously and they are now sold by the thousands in markets across the country, especially in Provence.

Today, the manufacture of santons is often a family business handed down from generation to generation.

Usually a Santon sculpt a figurine out of clay and make a two-part plaster cast, which he then uses to make other figurines.

They are dried for several weeks, baked and painted by hand.

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