An empty cornflakes box. The silver foil from several bars of chocolate. Scotch tape.
Not items which you would automatically associate with Polish folk art. Yet in the hands of the szopkarze, Cracow's creche-makers extraordinaires, such unassuming materials are miraculously transformed to create some of the most beautiful and intricate examples of crafts you are likely to see in Poland. The annual exhibition of creches, or szopki, currently at Cracow's Krzysztofory Gallery, is the only event of its kind in Europe, and for many of those taking part, represents the culmination of several months' hard work. Work which is often so detailed as to leave you gasping with admiration.
Nowhere else has the tradition of making Christmas creches survived on such a scale as in Cracow. Forget anything you've ever seen in Cepelia folk-art stores. A genuine creche is covered from top to bottom in cheery, brightly colored foil and is recognizably Cracovian. Following the tradition started by the city's 19th-century bricklayers, the architecture of Poland's ancient capital is recreated in miniature and then juggled about according to the whims of the artist, creating fairy-tale castles bathed in color.
From szopki barely six inches high, to Eugeniusz Wołkowicz's mammoth four-foot-high masterpiece, each one is unique. Gimmicks and gadgets, moving figures and flashing electronic diodes, no holds are barred to attract the attention of the competition's judges. Indeed, almost anything goes, as long as all those present at the stable in Bethlehem are represented. Although, at times, it's hard to make out the three wise men for dancing Lajkoniki and roaring dragons, there is something fascinating about the lengths to which the creche-makers will go to outdo their rivals. The creches may well have moved with the times, but they are no less appealing for that. Technological advances can only benefit the particular genius of the szopkarze as they push their creations to yet dizzier heights of perfection. One almost shudders to think what avenues the packaging of the 21st century could open up to them.
Some of the most charming creches are to be found in the children's section. The standard of many of the pieces here, some made by szopkarze as young as seven, is truly astonishing. Even if it is true that some of the facts do get a little mixed up-was Santa Claus really present at the birth of baby Jesus?-these shaky, lopsided creations have a striking naivete about them. They are characterized by a certain simplicity which is dear to the heart of folk art, and which is sometimes lost in the elaborate work of the grown-up creche-makers.
Cracow is a magical place at the best of times, and perhaps it is traditions such as these which help keep the unique atmosphere of this most beautiful of Polish cities alive. It may be nearly February, but the unsuperstitious people of Cracow are still celebrating Christmas in their own time-honored fashion. Maybe there is some method in the madness of the creche-makers, some of whom will already be sitting down to start work on next year's model extravaganza. In a sense, you could say that they celebrate Christmas all year round.
Christian van Lierop, Cracow
The exhibition is open until mid-February.[an error occurred while processing this directive]