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The Incredible tradition of Santons de Provence

A legendary father, a dying art and truly unique craftsmanship. Marylène Bourges makes santons, traditional terracotta figurines which are typical in Provence. Having learned her trade from her father, Laurent Bourges, who was renowned for his own santons, she is determined to keep this tradition alive. We meet her in her lovely stone cottage, hidden away on the Route des Baux-de-Provence. Step inside this fascinating little workshop located very close to our property L’Étoile des Baux.

SANTON : Noun - Small Provençal figurine representing the characters of the Nativity (Jesus, Mary and Joseph, the Magi, the shepherds, the ox, the donkey and other popular characters). Have you seen the Nativity scenes in Provence with these small painted plaster figurines, as long as a finger, called santons? (Tharaud, Péguy, 1926, p. 82).

“My parents started making santons in 1955. Papa created his first santon at the age of 9 and made his first mould at 13. He always had a passion for them. In his early twenties, he attended the École des Beaux Arts where he specialised in modelling and painting and won various prizes. In 1955, he decided to start making santons. Initially, there were only about forty different figurines, but as time went on, Papa expanded his collections. Every year, he created new moulds between Christmas and Easter. Creating a mould is a long and delicate process but that was his favourite thing to do. In total, he created some 450 moulds during his 50-year career.

“When I was very young, Papa used to give me a small mould; I didn’t have enough strength in my arms so I used to sit on it. I always said that I’d make santons.”

“Today, we think there are just 50 santon makers who work full time.”

“Traditionally, santons must be brightly coloured but matte. Accessories like jugs or fruit and vegetables can be varnished but the faces and clothes must never shine; otherwise, it’s no longer a genuine Provençal santon.”

Santons are baked slowly. The fire is lit from around 6 a.m. until 1 a.m. the next day. Wood has to be added gradually, every forty-five minutes. The santons are placed on a cast iron slab which is covered with ash to retain the heat.  Nothing changes on the second day; at the end of the third day, the ash is removed; at the end of the fourth day, the santons are taken out of the oven so that their colour can be checked. Each batch features about 3,500 santons which are baked in an oven at about 900 degrees.”

Discover this portrait in ICONS Les Baux-de-Provence, our collection of self-published guides to our Iconic House destinations.

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