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Santons (Provençal: "santoun," or "little saint") are small (2.5–15 cm) hand-painted terracotta nativity scene figurines produced in the Provence region of southeastern France. In a traditional Provençal crèche, there are 55 individual figures representing various characters from Provençal village life such as the scissors grinder, the fishwife, the blind man, and the chestnut seller.
The first clay santons were created by Marseillais artisan Lagnel (1764-1822) during the French Revolution when churches were forcibly closed and their large nativity scenes prohibited. Lagnel crafted small figurines in plaster molds and let them dry before firing them.
A maker of santons is a santonnier, and the creation of santons today is essentially a family craft, handed down from parents to children. Santons are moulded in two halves, pressed together, and fused. Hats, baskets, and other accessories are applied with an adhesive. When the figure is completely dry, it is given a gelatin bath in order to harden the figure further and to provide a surface for the application of pigments. Faces are painted first, then hair, clothing and accessories. Until the end of the 19th century, santons were air-dried rather than fired in a kiln. As a consequence, such figures were fragile and easily broken. Modern santons are generally fired in a kiln. There are two types of santons: santons d'argile (clay figures), and doll-like santons habillés (clothed figures).
Since 1803, santonniers have gathered in Marseille each December to display and sell their wares at the Foire des Santonniers. Aubagne Santon Fair in Marseille holds a two-day fair, Biennale de l'Art Santonnier, and the Musée du Santon in Marseille exhibits a private collection of 18th and 19th century santons.
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