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Ricardo Fernández Gracia, Director of the Chair of heritage and art of Navarre.

The works and the days in the art of Navarre (15). The nativity scene in Navarre in the XIX and XX centuries.

Fri, 22 Dec 2017 09:50:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

The last two centuries have meant for the history of the nativity scene in Navarra a continuous process of growth, in tune with the rest of Spain, becoming one of those customs and devotions of the people that mark its entrails.

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, together with the perspective of its dioramas. The Church and the nascent Associations of Nativity Scenes -especially the Catalan ones-, promoted the new tendency and the polychrome clay figures and the representation of the pre-industrial society in the nativity scenes began to decline.

Behind that innovation there were some causes. In the first place, the tradition of the Church of not blessing clay figures. The new ones, from the school of Olot, were made of wood paste and had a dignified appearance and, above all, a pretended historical fidelity, as they dressed their characters with timeless attire based on tunics, cloaks and turbans. Precisely because of its "property" and historicity, that aesthetic captivated private 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 of "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 that was disappearing as the 20th century progressed.


In tune with popular tradition: the Mendigorría nativity scene of 1825 and a shop window of 1857.

The Mendogorría Nativity Scene, kept in the Diocesan Museum, is related to the Baroque models. It was the work of the sculptor Juan José Vélaz, a resident of Pamplona, following his own design and conditioned in 1825. For the price of 370 pesos he undertook to make fourteen sculptures including shepherds, mystery and kings, plus eight lambs and the landscape and portal, all in "pine wood of good quality, all worked with the greatest care as required by the divine mystery". Although the pieces lack quality, iconographically they are a lesson in how the rabadanes and women dressed at the beginning of the 19th century, as well as the way in which newborn children were dressed.

The popularity achieved by the workshops of Murcia and Granada flooded the market since the mid-nineteenth century, before the workshops of Olot captivated with their particular historicist vision. Among the most interesting sets of polychrome clay of the nineteenth century is the crib of the Poor Clares of Fitero, today in the Poor Clares of Tudela, donated by Elías Terrer and dated 1857, which contains delicate figures of the so-called fine, to contrast them with those of coarse, much more abundant. They are popular Spanish types, dressed with their vests, leggings and hats, and their skirts, overskirts, aprons and colorful scarves.


The nativity scene of the Jubera-Navascués family in Pamplona

Just after the middle of the 19th century, in the city of Pamplona there was a renowned nativity scene, that of Don Leonardo Jubera (†1884), procurator of the ecclesiastical curia, of which we have news through the notes of his granddaughter, Guadalupe Ascunce Jubera (1861-1944), who entered as a Discalced Carmelite in Corella with the name of María Teresa de la Sagrada Familia in 1880, after receiving a very careful Education in the house of her grandparents. Guadalupe was the sister of the Jesuits Enrique and Luciano Ascunce.

During his childhood, between 1865-1870, he was able to contemplate in the conference room of the Pamplona house of his grandparents Leonardo and Francisca Navascués the mystery of Christmas in an urn, in whose part leave there was: "on the three sides a tiny Nativity with very fine little figures of two and a half centimeters and between thirty or forty little figures, up to the three Magi and the beheading of the Innocent Children by the cruel soldiers of Herod". But it was not the only crib in that house since there was another monumental one with moving figures. This is how he recalled it many years later: "My grandfather used to put a big Nativity Scene on the leave floor of his house with several moving figures, sawing machines..., all of it was amazing, back then when electricity was unknown".    


New times and the triumph of historicist aesthetics

The novelties and the historicist vision arrived in Navarre and increased with the turn of the century. In December 1904, the chaplain of the Diputación 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 with a following of the historicism, in clothes, 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".

Among the Pamplona nativity scenes that attracted attention at the end of the 19th century, due to their setting and figures, was that of the Capuchins of San Pedro. Those religious, in tune with St. Francis of Assisi, remained faithful to a secular tradition. In 1905 they incorporated the electric light to the montage and several references in the magazine Truth and Charity gloss its characteristics. In a article of Fray Sebastián de Goñi of the Magazine Pregón of 1945, we read: "The Nativity Scene of Capuchinos! Who is there in Pamplona who does not know it? But I have said little: I do not think I am exaggerating if I affirm that the whole Cuenca has paraded, with the rotation of time, to contemplate it and then to overflow in lighted ponderings. Until a few years ago there was no one else in Pamplona who dared to be in his company, much less to make him skill". Father Tarsicio de Azcona informs us that he himself was a witness of how every year a group of theology students would devise group and exhibit it in the chapel of Christ, attached to the church and with very considerable proportions. In the 1940s and following decades, hundreds of people from Pamplona visited it.

The Escolapios was already successfully mounted 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". With 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 Escolapios, Capuchinos and Carmelitas Descalzos were noted as very visited and animated, especially by the children who came accompanied by their parents.

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 of 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 forgetfulness of their many moral and physical pains".

But, not only religious institutions prepared great nativity scenes. In a article of Diario de Navarra of December 27, 1910 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".


Also in the villages

Generally, in the localities where there were religious orders, these were getting figures to mount their nativity scenes. This was the case with the Sisters of Santa Ana in Fitero since their arrival in 1887. Little by little, farmers and families with a good economic position, acquired their particular assemblies and figures. Their homes were witnesses of all those celebrations around the cribs, even organizing rounds of carols by groups to visit them.

In Ituren the origin of the nativity scene dates back to 1920 in the chapel of the Sacred Hearts. The correspondent of the Diario de Navarra affirms in the Christmas of that year: "I have to consign with great satisfaction the good impression that has produced in this neighborhood the placement of an artistic nativity scene that so much more has liked as it is the first time that it has been placed in this town". In 1929, Arizcun reported on a Christmas party of the children led by their teacher, pointing out that "the greatest merit of these diligent students and their tireless teacher is that the nativity scene before which the party took place, was all made and assembled by them, because even the clay figures, of which there was a profusion, were molded and painted by the aforementioned, of which all those who saw it, which was the whole town, became tongues as well as the work of their master teacher". The parish of Lodosa had a monumental nativity scene mounted in detail in 1933.

In the Escolapios de Tafalla, we know that, in 1911, buildings of the city were recreated, such as the place Nueva, the railroad station, as well as the castle of Olite. Its author was Father Gerardo García and as a special attraction the visits were enlivened with gramophone music that alternated with the piano with interpretations by Father Teodoro Iriarte.

Diario de Navarra since 1938 and the association de Belenistas in 1953.

In 1938 Diario de Navarra organized the first Nativity Scene competition with the intention of "contributing as much as possible to the restoration and flourishing of that old, pious, joyful, childish, familiar and national custom that in the happy days of the Nativity of the Child God, was the expression of Faith of the Spanish people in the honest enclosure of the home and in the angelic heart of the children ....". The instructions contemplated different prizes and distinctions. In that year there were 136 contestants and the following year 259. In 1944, the newspaper handed over the organization of the contest to board Diocesan Catholic Action.

The evolution of Nativity scenes in Navarre since 1953 is closely related to the association of Nativity Scenes of the capital of Navarre. A publication of this institution on the occasion of its fiftieth anniversary gathers the main milestones and its history. Competitions, courses, exhibitions, publications and other events have been in the news since its foundation, mainly during the months of December and January. Events such as the national congresses of 1964, 1972, 1979 and 1988 or the international congress of 2000 were milestones in its history, magnificently presented in the aforementioned 2003 publication, with texts by Manuel María Castells and Ángel María Garayoa.

    To cite an example, we recall that in 1965 there was a exhibition sponsored by the Caja de Ahorros Municipal de Pamplona, the business Inquinasa mounted 16 cribs in his business located in Echavacoiz, in a year in which the traditional outdoor Midnight Mass was prepared for the first time in the place of San Francisco. On the same date the association de Belenistas published a small book by its former president Eliso Ijalba with the degree scroll How to set up a Nativity Scene.

Some people distinguished themselves in the assembly of nativity scenes. Javier Zubiaur studied the work of the photographer Nicolás Ardanaz, owner of the Droguería en la Calle Mayor, one of the stores where the cork and the figures made room for themselves in December.

In 1997 the association from Pamplona founded, together with other associations of the Comunidad Foral, the Federation of Nativity Scene Makers of Navarra.