Picture: Nativity by Giotto di Bondone, 1311-1320.
Taken from http://www.wikipaintings.org/en/giotto/nativity
Nativity is the central scene of the Christian Christmas. The Nativity scene (also known as crèche, manger scene, or crib) is a depiction of the birth of Jesus. It is set in a manger (or a cave) and features Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus, and often also the Shepherds, the Angels, the Magi and symbolic animals: a donkey, an ox and the camels of the Magi. The Nativity scene is based on the accounts in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, and some apocryphal texts, and it can be depicted as films, paintings, three-dimensional dioramas, or pantomimes (living Nativity scenes featuring people and real animals).
The Biblical background and setting of the Nativity scene
According to the canonical Gospels of Luke and Matthew, Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem, Judea (today in the central West Bank, not far from Jerusalem). In Gospels Joseph and Mary, as a part of a census in which individuals had to return to the birthplace of their ancestors, travel to Bethlehem. There Virgin Mary gives birth to the Child, laying Him in a manger for animals. The Angels proclaim Him a Saviour for people, the Shepherds come to adore him, and three Magi, following a star to Bethlehem, bring gifts to Jesus, born the King of the Jews.
The Church (Basilica) of the Nativity was founded in Bethlehem in 327 AD by Constantine and his mother Helena, and was reconstructed several times through centuries. The Grotto of the Nativity is the name of an underground cave beneath the basilica, that enshrines the presumed birthplace of Jesus. The exact spot is marked by a 14-pointed silver star surrounded by silver lamps. Another altar in the Grotto marks the site where, according to the tradition, Mary laid the newborn Child in the manger.
Painting: Nativity and Annunciation to the Shepherds by Bernardino Luini
Licensed under Public Domain via
After the birth of Jesus the Sacred Family moved to Nazareth (located in the North District of Israel), where He would spend His adolescent years.
History of the Nativity representations
The earliest Nativity scene depictions were found in the catacombs and on sarcophagi in Rome, often featuring the Magi. Some wealthy Romans embellished too much the scene depicting Mary on a throne receiving the Three Kings, which contradicted the sense of poverty and humility attributed to the Nativity of Jesus.
From the 4th century on, the Nativity became one of the most spread themes in religious art, depicted in sculpture, paintings, mosaics and iconography. The main difference between the Western and Eastern iconographic traditions was related to Mary. In the West the conception and birth of Jesus were seen as divine events, so Virgin Mary did not suffer during the parturition and was usually depicted seated, holding the Infant Jesus on her lap, or on her knees in a posture of adoration. In the Eastern tradition the reality of the incarnation of Jesus and his human birth were emphasized, and Mary, after the parturition, was depicted lying down.
In the 13th century, a particular tradition of the “presepio” (Nativity crib) was started by St Francis of Assisi, and soon spread in Mediterranean Europe. The Nativity crib is a reconstruction, usually three-dimensional, of the Nativity scene that is not considered an object of the religious worship. The types of the cribs are: static dioramas composed of figurines in a certain scenery, mechanic dioramas in which the figurines are animated by special mechanisms, and pantomimes, the living Nativity scenes involving people.
The similar tradition called “vertep” was spread in the Middle Ages in the Eastern countries, especially Ukraine, Poland and Belarus. The tradition mainly included the puppet theatre representations of the Nativity scene, as well as pantomimes. Students usually travelled in the villages at Christmas period and staged performances in their mobile puppet theatre (also called “vertep”), getting in exchange some treats and coins.
Origins and history of the Nativity crib
The first living Nativity scene was organized by St Francis of Assisi, during Christmas period of 1223, in Greccio (a small town of the ancient origins, located in Lazio region, Italy). The living reconstruction of the divine mystery of the Nativity was intended to cultivate the worship of Christ and the humility of His birth, inspired by St Francis’ previous visit to the Holy Land and the traditional birthplace of Jesus. All necessary materials were prepared to recreate the setting of the Holy Cave in Bethlehem, in which the Saint placed a small altar and a manger on the rock, with an ox and a donkey beside it, involving a real peasant family with a child and people who represented the Shepherds. At High Mass, Francis took a sleeping child from the crib and roused it.
Fresco: Scenes from the Life of St Francis (Scene 9, north wall), by Benozzo Gozzoli. Chiesa di San Francesco, Montefalco. Taken from
To learn more about St Francis and the annual celebration in Greccio, dedicated to the first living nativity, please visit the article: St Francis.
That kind of pantomime soon gained popularity in many Catholic countries. With the earliest Nativity scene carved in wood by an Italian architect and sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio in 1280, also static Nativity cribs spread in Europe, featuring figurines in different settings, sometimes growing into the larger representations depicting the whole village and landscape around the Nativity scene. The first static representations were made of wood or terracotta. Today static Nativity scenes are spread all over the world, made of various materials like wood, stone, straw, clay, porcelain, glass and many others, and are displayed during the Christmas season in churches, homes, town squares and various public places. Anyway, the strongest craft traditions are kept in the Mediterranean Europe, especially in Italy and Spain.
Some local characteristics of the Nativity cribs
Szopka are traditional Polish nativity scenes dating to the 13th-century Kraków. Their modern construction incorporates elements of Kraków's historic architecture including Gothic spires, Renaissance facades, and Baroque domes, as well as elements of polish culture such as figures of the renowned historical or contemporary characters.
Exhibition of the Krakow's Szopka:
Weihnachtsberg is a decorative, mountain-like model of the landscape of the Ore Mountains (between Germany and the Czech Republic) portraying, besides the traditional Nativity scene, mining motifs and local themes. Weihnachtsberg has its origins in the so-called Buckelbergwerk models of the 18th century, which featured only mining subjects.
In Spain the Nativity crib is known as Belén, which is the Spanish name for Bethlehem. Usually Belén is placed near the Christmas tree, and features the traditional religious figures. Anyway, there is a particular folk character in the Spanish nativity: el Caganer, which is a figure in a position of doing a poo. It has origins in the Catalan traditions, dating back at least to the 18th century, and is depicted originally as a Catalan peasant in traditional costume. According to the folk beliefs, this figure symbolizes the fertilization of the Earth for the coming year, but with growing commercial and entertaining aspects of the holiday is often taken for mere fun. This character’s presence in the holy Nativity scene causes disputes and controversies, and in some places it is banned for public cribs by local governments.
On the left - Belén Alcalá de Guadaíra, Sevilla, España, by Rafael Ortega Díaz - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
On the right - "Caganer al pessebre" by Slastic - Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Santons are small terracotta figurines typically produced for the nativity crib in Provence region (France). The traditional Nativity scene includes 55 of such figurines representing various characters from Provençal village life. The first santons were created by an artisan from Marseille, Jean-Louis Lagnel (1764-1822), during the French Revolution when the large Nativity scenes in churches were prohibited.