The terra cotta santon is an emblem of Provence throughout the world. Originating from Marseilles at the end of the 18th century, it is one of the few craft objects that is still produced using traditional methods.
The forerunners of the noble terra cotta santon were made from breadcrumbs, plaster, wax or crushed glass. Production has continued right up to the present day, preserving a unique know-how where creation and workshop secrets are still closely associated.
A world of clay
According to available records, the first maker of crib santons to use clay was the Marseilles figurine maker Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822). This material was chosen because it has numerous advantages compared to plaster. It can be moulded using the fingers to create small details; it dries slowly, making it easier to rework the figures once removed from the mould; separate elements can be stuck on directly, such as arms, hats and other accessories using "barbotine" (clay mixed with water), for so-called "detached" santons. Most of the red clay used comes from the Aubagne area. It is flexible clay, chosen to be as fine as possible to eliminate impurities. It was at the end of the 19th century that clay became the only material used to make santons. During this same period, the main problem associated with simple clay - its fragility - was solved by baking it.
The three main qualities a santon maker must possess are strength for the moulding, patience, and dexterity to paint the figurines. In addition to this of course, each one has their own manufacturing methods and a few secrets handed down from father to son. Most crib santons are mass-produced using a hollow mould, making it possible to produce large numbers of identical figurines. The moulds are made up using a model fashioned by means of chisel from clay. The truly creative phase in the manufacturing process is this fashioning of the model.
Once it has dried, this prototype will give birth to the master mould using a formwork process. The master mould is usually made from plaster, and will make it possible to produce mass-production moulds, used to manufacture the pieces.
"Simple" santons are the most widespread nowadays. They are produced using a two-part mould, and so the model is greatly simplified. The knack is then to reduce the risk of breakage to the minimum.
From stamping to colouring
Actual manufacturing can then start with stamping, which consists in pressing the clay into each of the mould's halves. The two halves are then brought together, usually tightened by a clamp. A system of keys ensures they marry exactly. When clay starts to detach from the mould sides, the figurines are removed from the mould after an initial drying phase. They are placed in the oven two to three weeks later, and baked for approximately 10 hours, at a temperature gradually increasing from zero to roughly 960 degrees.
After cooling for approximately 6 hours, colouring of the santons can begin. The figurines are decorated in large groups following a clearly defined procedure: starting with the lightest parts and finishing with the darkest parts, and from top to bottom.
Most santon-makers use water-based preparations, principally the gouache they make themselves using traditionally organic pigments, to which they add gum arabic to serve as a binder. The ochres come mainly from the Apt quarries in the Roussillon area. Occasionally they make use of acrylic paint and sometimes varnish to complete the finish, or to give clothing and certain accessories a shiny appearance.
All the figurines put on sale by the santon-makers are made using this manufacturing process. They are based on characters from the "Pastorale" to which are added "figures" representing traditional trades or other characters of more local interest.
Crèches et santons de Provence" by Régis Bertrand