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Setting the nativity scene

Christmas’ nativity scene

I continue talking about Christmas elements and ornaments and now it is the turn of the nativity scene, that crib in Bethlehem that usually accompanies the Christmas tree in our homes.

As the time goes by, the human creativity has made possible that the simple nativity scene composed by baby Jesus, the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph has transformed into an extensive nativity scene including figurines of all kinds and even engineering works covering the events of the whole city of Bethlehem, even illustrating by sections from the odyssey that Mary and Joseph went through until the birth of the Christ until the adoration of the wise men, some of them go even further in time though, covering the flight to Egypt…

But let’s go back to where this Christmas tradition comes from.

He was born in a stable…

The stable

The word manger derives from the Latin “praesepium”, an expression used around 350 AD by Saint Jerome in his Biblical translation (the Vulgate)

Likewise, “praesepium” derives from “prae-sepas”, possibly related to the Greek “phate”, which describes the concavity where cattle feed is deposited.

First signs

The Virgin Mary holding baby Jesus. Capella Greca of Saint Priscilla catacombs, Rome.

It seems that the first testimonies of the Nativity dates from the second century. In the catacombs of Santa Priscilla in Rome one can find the oldest representation of the Virgin Mary with the Holy Child.

From the 4th and 5th centuries we can highlight the proliferation of these types of images sculpted in sarcophagi, being of special mention the construction similar to the grotto of Bethlehem ordered to be raised by Pope Sixtus III after reconverting the early Christian church of the fourth century (the Liberian Basilica) in a temple dedicated to the Virgin Mary. This example dates from 432 and is found in Santa Maria Maggiore oratory in Rome.

Later on, in the Middle Ages, Christmas motifs began to be sculpted in capitals and doorways of cloisters, monasteries, abbeys and temples, to educate and teach the people about Sacred History.

Special devotion to the Birth of Jesus is expressed by the Order of the knights Templars, who encouraged and promulgated the worship of Jesus and the Holy Sepulchre.

The belenism

Greccio’s crib. 1295-1299. Giotto. Asisi’s Mayor basilica. Italy.

If we had to put a date and name to this tradition, this would be December 25, 1223, and this one, Pietro Bernardone known as San Francesco d’Assisi (Saint Francis of Asisi)

Saint Francis had a revelation due to his visit through Holy Land first and then Rome, where he marveled at the mosaics of the Birth of Jesus of Saint Mary the Major church (right next to the place where, tradition point out the location of true splinters from the original manger)

15 days before the aforementioned date, our protagonist contacted a citizen of Greccio called Giovanni to help him to materialize his vision: “I wish to celebrate the memory of the Holy Child who was born in Bethlehem and I want to contemplate somehow with my eyes what he suffered in his invalidity as a Child, how he was reclined in the manger and how he was placed on hay between the ox and the donkey.” So Giovanni started right away to work on the idea in the same place pointed out by the friar.

The agreed day came to Greccio friars and nuns from various places and orders together with the locals, carrying flowers and torches to illuminate that divine night, discovering with great fascination the scene of the beautiful “presepre”, continued by a mass celebration, to emphasize the link between the incarnation of God the Father in Jesus and the Holy Eucharist.

But what was that nativity scene like? Well, they say that the representation lacked figurines but baby Jesus, the scene was covered with hay and the ox and an ass were also present.

The inmediate expansion

Saint Giovanni Carborana’s crib. Naples.

Saint Francis of Assisi embodied heavenly vision caused such an impact that it was carried out first to the Italian “duoms”, and afterwards to all European churches. _There’s a good example in the Duomo di Volterra, carved by the sculptor Andrea della Robbia.

Probably, the oldest nativity scene preserved was found in San Giovanni Carbonara church, in Naples, formed by wooden figurines dated in the 14th century (we can see them nowadays in San Martino’s museum)

Already in the 16th century, it seems ti be started the tradition of setting up the nativity scene only at Christmas time, as documented around 1562 in the Jesuits church in Prague.

And finally, by the same century, in 1567,we can speak about the first nativity scene own by a family. It was property of the Duchess of Amalfi, counting with 107 figures, a mixture of evangelical and other anonymous characters.

The baroque, the final boost

Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus. Giuseppe Sanmartino.

It’s easy to imagine that, the baroque, the most decorative style, propelled the propagation of the nativity scene.

In the 18th century, talented artists like Damián Campeny, Giuseppe Sanmartino, Francisco Salzillo and Bernardo Legarda left their particular mark on the art of Belenism.

Belenism in Spain

Neapolitan crib. Royal Palace. Madrid

In our country, it was King Carlos III to give the final push to the tradition, making available a large room of the Madrid Royal Palace to organize a nativity scene so that it could be visited by anyone.

As in Italy the nativity scenes proliferated in the sixteenth century, in Spain we were not left behind, since the oldest Spanish nativity scene dates from 1536, and is located in the Balearic Islands, specifically in the Annunciation church of Palma de Mallorca (known as La Sang)

First Spanish nativity scene legend

De la Sang nativity scene. Palma de Mallorca. Spain

Yes, the first nativity scene in the Iberian Peninsula has a legend!

Once upon a time… a ship departed from Italy carrying on board the seven Marian mysteries figurines. The ship captained by Domingo Gangonne, at a certain point during the voyage, was involved in a tremendous storm, so badly that it was very close to sinking it. The captain, as a good sailor leader, promised to deliver one of the seven Marian mysteries carried on board in exchange for salvation.

The promise made to the Divine took effect and the ship was delivered from death, being illuminated by a light, the one from the lamp of Our Snow Lady, eternally lit up from the convent of Our Angels or Jesus Lady, located on Palma island, the same convent that would later host the Majorcan friar who evangelized California, Fray Junípero Serra.

The monks noticed during their morning prayers and meditations the battered ship approaching them, and immediately ran towards the ship to help the crew.

Once they were saved, Domingo Gangonne wanted to fulfilled his promises and agreed with a prior to choose one of the Marian mysteries, being chosen the one of the Nativity.

Curiously the captain was not enthusiastic about the election, but rather the opposite and refused to gave the prior what he asked for. Instead, Gargonne set an ultimatum to the prior: to choose some other or none. After a pointless argument, the captain decided to set sail as soon as the sea was calm, but when he tried to set out, the ship didn’t move. Without doubt, he was being punished from above for not fulfilling his promise, so he had to accept the deal and give the mystery of the Nativity to the prior as first requested, no choice but to yield and leave in the convent the precious art work.

That supernatural event was responsible for the great devotion for the extraordinary Gothic figures attributed to Alamanno’s workshop, very well recognized sculptors of the oldest Neapolitan nativity scenes of the 15 century.

Well, now it’s your turn to share, what’s your nativity scene like? Are you one of those who go to detail or those who put the crib without missing a thing? I will love to read your comments.


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