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Heritage and identity (59). Photographs of centenary nativity scenes


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Diario de Navarra

Ricardo Fernández Gracia

Director of the Chair of Navarrese Heritage and Art

The photo library of file General de Navarra preserves photographs of family nativity scenes of two families, that of Julio Altadill in Pamplona and that of the Astiz-Iriarte family at the back of the Osambela house in Huici. Chronologically, both examples are already a hundred years old, so that their examination allows us to make some considerations about the traditional nativity scene that prevails in the two assemblies. The nativity scenes in many houses were already abundant a century ago, although the photographic machines had not put their goal in those three-dimensional scenographies of the birth of Christ, with the portal as the most important element of the same ones.

A general context

At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, the traditional and popular nativity scene was replaced by another of subject historicist style with landscapes and orientalist figures. The Church and the nascent associations of nativity scene makers -especially the Catalan ones-, promoted the new trend and the old polychrome clay figures began to decline, as well as the representation of the pre-industrial society in the nativity scenes.

Behind that innovation there were some causes. In the first place, the tradition of the Church of not blessing clay figures. But, in addition, the new ones, from the school of Olot, were made of wood paste and had a dignified appearance and, above all, they were presented with the seal of the pretended historical fidelity, by dressing their characters with timeless attire based on tunics, cloaks and turbans. Precisely because of its "property" and historicity, that aesthetic captivated personal clients and institutions with its particular historical vision, derived from the group of the Nazarenes, German painters who reacted against the prevailing Neoclassicism, based on the archaeological discoveries in Palestine. In the same vein, the artists of the Parisian street of Saint Sulpice had a decisive influence on the Olot school, with a correct and somewhat sweet style. With these premises, numerous institutions, especially parishes, convents and schools opted for those figures, standardizing everything related to the nativity scene, always from the orientalist perspective. For the time being, the Olot figures coexisted with the terracotta ones, but they would eventually prevail over the latter. For the landscapes, the new aesthetics found in plaster, a material with which to recreate their intended biblical environments, while rules of naturalism, perspective and historical fidelity, understood in the manner of the time, were imposed.

The struggle between the popular and traditional tendency and the new nativity scene, called "correct" and in "good taste", was strongly felt in Madrid and Barcelona. The confrontation between both has been studied in the case of Madrid by Ángel Peña and, recently, for Catalonia in an interesting work by Jordi Montlló, describing it as a battle, because two antagonistic visions oppose each other. In Navarre, Eliso Ijalba was conciliatory in an interview in Diario de Navarra on December 27, 1963, although in the guide he wrote in 1965, he felt that the biblical nativity scene was "recommendable because it transports us, for the sake of its realism, to the atmosphere of that Holy Night". However, the texts of Julio Caro Baroja, José María Iribarren and José Javier Uranga are evocative about the meaning of the traditional nativity scene, which was disappearing as the 20th century progressed.

Julio Altadill's Nativity Scene

Julio Altadill's personality is well known to us. He was born in Toledo in 1858, but grew up in Pamplona, where he died in 1935. He was a military man, photographer and historian. He won several prizes in Pamplona between 1883 and 1886, published two voluminous volumes corresponding to Navarre in the Geografía general del País Vasco-Navarro. He was a corresponding academician of Fine Arts and held different positions in the Commission of Monuments of Navarre.

A large part of his photographic production is kept in the file General de Navarra, with landscape, heritage and family photography themes. The two photographs we present here of his family nativity scene should be included in the last section.

A century ago, the assembly of the nativity scene and the visits constituted a true social event that transcended the home and family, since neighbors and friends visited those three-dimensional representations that recreated the birth of Christ. Let us remember a article of Diario de Navarra of December 27, 1910, in which we read: "Here in Pamplona there are many nativity scenes that are installed and, when the weather is mild, it is to see the jubilee that is formed in each house of the Lord where hundreds and hundreds of children congregate to recreate in the contemplation of what for them is or seems to be a living reality".

The nativity scene in the photograph is set up inside an urban house, in front of a Library Services, whose showcases look out from the sides. It has been made only with sawdust, leaves of bushes and moss, with the typical high arrangement of some mountains where some constructions and the castle are located. In the nearest area, there is the portal and the houses of homemade, but very well cared for, as well as a bridge and the river. The two photos belong to the same montage, although in one of them the disposition of the Magi has changed, as well as some of the figures. These belong in their internship totality to Murcian workshops, but not to the popular ones, but to elegant designs elaborated to toothpick and with very fine polychromies. Many of these molds can still be seen in some popular collections. Unmistakable are the shepherds and the shepherdesses with their hats to the Federica, or the bows of doorknob of some old women. The offerings, typical of an agro-pastoral society, present all subject of products of the field and livestock. There is also the group of dancers and musicians next to the portal, nor the typical and colorful washerwomen next to the river. The only figures that do not belong to this Murcian origin are those of the Nativity, larger than the rest and from the workshops of Olot, therefore, more historicist and made of wood paste. As announcing angel a holy water font of nineteenth-century French porcelain has been used, and the font is covered with the Gloria in excelsis Deo.

subject However, the years were numbered in Pamplona and Navarre as well. The novelties and the historicist vision had arrived in Navarre and increased with the turn of the century. In December 1904, the chaplain of the Provincial Council, Tomás Ascárate Pardo, published a couple of articles on the nativity scene in El Eco de Navarra. In the second of them, he gave precise norms for its installation, following the historicism, in costumes, colors and other details. He ends his writing with these words: "I am going to finish advising you not to put in the nativity scenes churches with crosses, nor hunters with shotguns, nor houses with para-rays, nor railroads with the train hiding in a tunnel; because these things, although they seem beautiful to you, are improper, my children, and not existing in those we should not place them". The lace would come, on the one hand, from the hand of the church itself that did not recommend blessing clay figures, opting for those of wood pulp from Olot. On the other hand, after the Civil War, the directives issued by the Spanish Falange to the nativity scene makers and their associations argued in favor of banishing the anachronisms of the popular nativity scene.

The example of the Astiz-Iriarte family, in the photographic collection of the Osambela de Huici house.

The photo of the other nativity scene that we present is also preserved in the Fototeca of the file General de Navarra, from the collection of the Osambela de Huici house. It was certainly the work of Fidel Astiz Iriarte (1881-1957), son of Zacarías Astiz Juanmartiñena (1852-1943), lawyer, founder of La Vasconia and Diario de Navarra and María Francisca de Iriarte Muguiro, owner of the Osambela house. Fidel was also a lawyer and vice-president of the Juvenile Court of Pamplona. His fondness for photography led him to take numerous snapshots made with glass and nitrate plates, with family themes, portraits, travel, hunting and horseback riding. His entire collection is integrated with that of the Iráizoz Astiz family, since he named his niece María del Carmen Iraizoz. Most of his photos are related to the Osambela house, his travels and hobbies.

As in the case of the Altadill family nativity scene, Fidel Astiz's goal stopped at one of the most anticipated family events during the year, especially for the children of the house, who we have to assume were his nephews and nieces and relatives.

The photo of the nativity scene, in this case, shows an example made with a large landscape of snow-capped mountains in the background and, in addition to branches and moss, wood bark and cork are used. The walls, some models of buildings, sheepfolds, a pruned vineyard and the great aqueduct are striking. Most of the figures belong to Murcian workshops, including the Nativity Scene. However, there are also others of diverse origins, such as the snowman or the sheep, more of the lacha than merino breed, in some cases, although there are also some of the wire-legged ones.

Comparing it with Altadill's, this one has more landscape scenery, but fewer figures and not of such quality, size and uniformity. But at this point, we must remember, once again, that the traditional nativity scene did not understand proportions, in the manner of today's dioramas, but rather on the contrary, it was richer in traditional and symbolic values, as we already made clear in another article in this same newspaper(Diario de Navarra, December 6, 2015). There we recalled that, compared to the panorama of the last hundred years dominated by historicism, the ancient nativity scenes possessed a much more symbolic character in all their elements, since in an illiterate society it was easier to catechize through simple messages than to speculate about the reality of 1st century Judea. It was not so much a matter of conjecture, nor of organizing perspectives and scales, but of transmitting messages about the ineffable, through ideas.

Other Nativity scenes of the moment

Along with the nativity scenes of the houses, the people of Pamplona visited those installed in religious institutions. The Escolapios Nativity Scene was already being successfully set up at least since 1910, when the chronicle says that it was beautiful and could be visited at schedule in the morning and afternoon. In 1917 it was noted as the one that attracted the most attention in the capital of Navarre, attracting many visitors "for its size and good taste". In time, Father Alejandro Pérez Altuna mounted it from 1937 with movement in its figures. Much of it has survived to the present day, having been restored in 2016, with the replacement of the wind-up motors with electric ones.

In 1911 the nativity scenes of the Escolapios, Capuchinos and Discalced Carmelites were noted as very visited and animated, especially by the children who came accompanied by their parents and relatives. Of the Little Sisters of the Poor, we can read in a article published on New Year's Day 1921 by José Asenjo, in which we read: "In each dining room..., the Little Sisters have installed a beautiful Nativity Scene, in which angelic hands put all the religious unction and refined taste of those who live with all the intensity that sublime drama of the Nativity Scenes. These are a motive of constant admiration and bidding among the poor asylum seekers who find in their snowy mountains of flour and rivers of crystal the evocation of the best years which is the oblivion of their many moral and physical pains".