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Ricardo Fernández Gracia,, director of the Chair of Heritage and Art of Navarre

Symbolism in the traditional nativity scene


Sat, 26 Dec 2015 12:08:00 +0000 Published in Navarra Newspaper

If we visit a modern-day nativity scene, we will find delicate three-dimensional representations of the birth of Christ to scale, with frequently orientalist architecture and figures of a supposedly historicist style. However, until a little over a century ago, the traditional nativity scene was based on other assumptions: portal with classical ruins, large rocks and crags and figures dressed according to the customs and traditions of different regions.

The great change with respect to the figures took place at the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the last century, when the Church and the nascent associations of nativity scene makers -especially the Catalan ones-, promoted the creation of a new style. From then on, the old polychrome clay figures, made in the workshops of Murcia or Granada, exponents and synthesis of a secular tradition, began to decline. All this was favored even more by some directives that, after the Civil War, were directed from the Spanish Falange to the nativity scene makers and their associations to banish the anachronisms of the popular nativity scene.

Behind those innovations there were some causes. In the first place, the custom of the Church of not blessing clay images. The new figures of the Olot school were made of wood paste and had a dignified appearance and, above all, a pretended historical fidelity, as their characters were dressed in timeless attire. Precisely because of its propriety and historicity, Olot's aesthetics 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 in Catalonia in the Olot school with a correct style, somewhat sweet and influenced by the Nazarene school. With these budgets, parishes, convents and schools, as well as amateurs opted for those figures, standardizing everything related to the nativity scene, always from the orientalist perspective. For the time being, the figures from the Olot workshops coexisted with the traditional terracotta ones, but they would end up imposing themselves on the latter, which also underwent their own evolution to adapt to fashion with tunics, cloaks, turbans, which would eventually incorporate the glued fabrics.

In contrast to the panorama of the last hundred years, dominated by historicism, ancient nativity scenes were much more symbolic in all their elements, since in an illiterate society it was easier to catechise through simple messages than to speculate on the reality of 1st century Judea. It was not so much a matter of conjecture, or of organising perspectives and scales, but of conveying messages about the ineffable, by means of ideas.

The cave and its characters
If classical ruins were placed in the cave, it was to signify that with the coming of Christ the Old Testament was surpassed. If rocks and boulders were placed in the cave, it was to insist that the birth of the Savior had taken place among beasts, in a cave, outside the inhabited place, after the Holy Family had been rejected by the people. All this gave rise to reflections on how Jesus could be expelled from the hearts of men. Candles and lanterns were placed next to portal and the floor was strewn with crushed glass and shells to reflect the light, since the nativity scenes were conceived to be admired at night, to approach with the senses and the spirit to contemplate the "light of the world".

The figures of Joseph and Mary were dressed in precise and symbolic colors. She wore red or pink in her tunic, to indicate the color of the flesh for the Incarnation, and blue in the mantle that identified her as queen of heaven. Frequently the tunic was white, to show her purity. Joseph, on the other hand, combined the purple of suffering and sacrifice with brown, the color with which carpenters were identified. Sometimes he wore a yellow mantle, because he belonged to the Jewish people. Ordinarily and following the recommendations of the visions of Saint Bridget, both were before the Child "kneeling on their knees, they adored Him with immense joy and gladness".

The Divine Infant was of large proportions, in tune with the old norms of hierarchical size, and used to be in a cradle of Trinitarian content, as it was adorned with a triangle and the Dove of the Holy Spirit, together with a glory of angels' heads. Regarding the animals, the mule is identified with the Jewish people, hence it appears in some cases kneeling before the mystery, giving way to the New Law, while the ox is assimilated with the pagans and gentility.

The water of the river or of the source also had a symbolic content, since where there is no water there is no life. The birth of Jesus became a real source of life.

Angels and archangels
The winged figures of these celestial beings gave the nativity scene its most ultraterrestrial dimension. In some cases they were worshippers or offerers and in others they carried instruments of the passion. In this respect, we must not forget the union of everything related to the Nativity Scene and the Passion, since everything was part of the same story. In some cases, in the same portal the archangels Michael and Gabriel were given quotation , as in the crib of Salzillo or in the one of the Recoletas of Pamplona. The reason is no other than the account of the birth that makes the Mother María Jesús de Ágreda in her Mystical City of God, where she affirms: "The Sacred Evangelist San Lucas says that the Virgin Mother, having given birth to her Firstborn Son, wrapped him in cloths and reclined him in a manger. And he does not state who bore Him at her hands from her Virginal Womb, for this does not pertain to his intent. But ministers of this action were the two Sovereign Princes St. Michael and St. Gabriel who, as they attended in corporeal human form the mystery, at the point that the humanized Word, penetrating with his virtue through the Virginal Thalamus, came forth, in due distance, they received him in their hands, with incomparable reverence.... And at the point that the Holy Angels presented the Child God to His Mother, the Most Holy Son and Mother looked reciprocally at each other, wounding the heart of the sweet Child and remaining together carried and transported by Him".

Shepherds and offerers
In the traditional nativity scene there was room for gleaners, orchard workers picking oranges, and countless traditional trades typical of pre-industrial society. All of them formed a festive microcosm, reflecting the overflowing joy produced by the arrival of Christmas Eve. It constituted an authentic explosion of life, a festive microcosm, where the Gospel texts of St. Luke and St. Matthew were freely reworked, with a prodigious fantasy and an artifice of inventions among all the characters of everyday life, only contrasted with the splendor and wealth of the Magi.

Particularly interesting are the groups of dancers and musicians who, through the streets and squares of the three-dimensional structure of the Nativity Scene, enlivened the atmosphere to unsuspected limits, as old people, hunchbacks and cripples were infected and danced to the sound of tambourines, zambombas, rattles and even wind and string instruments. The exaltation of the gaudium that invaded the houses and the liturgical celebrations of those days was reflected in the popular crib, not only in dancers and musicians, but also in the gestures of shepherds and rustics, both in the market and in the ordinary works, as well as in joyful farmers riding donkeys with their corresponding presents, singing and playing zambombas or tambourines, pedestrians, offerers, men working their vegetable gardens, or having lunch in inns with the typical fried eggs or cooking migas in huge frying pans. All those figures are a faithful reflection of a rural and pre-industrial society, as well as the tiny cork houses. The traditional costumes are those of the Manchegans, Maragatos or huertanos of that Spain before the railroad and all the industrial takeoff. They dress in Spanish capes, catites, chambergos, shirts, breeches, abarcas, zamarras and gaiters, and the women in sayas, aprons, over-skirts, scarves and hats. The trades and types represented are varied: farmers, ranchers, hunters, fishermen, blacksmiths, winemakers, market gardeners, shopkeepers and craftsmen from all over the world,
shopkeepers and craftsmen of all subject, without missing the helpless as widows, cripples and beggars, to signify that for all had come in Messiah.

Vitality and spontaneity were guaranteed in that story, which was meant to be lived and not only referred to. In the case of the Hispanic nativity scenes, the nativity was not lost as in Naples among an extroverted and even crazy people, but the scene became the center of the whole story.

It doesn't matter if the event takes place in winter, some wear warm clothes, others walk around with a simple vest, harvest or pick the most varied fruits, while old and young women and girls dance, delouse their husbands and fathers or devote themselves to the most varied tasks of the house and the agro-pastoral environment. Many of those types can be identified with the engravings of popular Spanish dresses printed by Juan de la Cruz.

The Magi, Herod...
The magi, usually on horseback, dress like western monarchs with ermine, rich cloaks, crowns and scepters. In the past they symbolized the three known continents, but in the time of the nativity scenes they are usually associated with the three ages of man. Their main significance is that they are revealed to us as the great manifestation, the Epiphany. Their gifts are associated with the Child King (gold), the Child God (frankincense) and the human Word (myrrh).

Herod also used to dress like a king. Along with his soldiers dressed in Roman style, with skirts, armor and helmets, those who sacrifice the innocents wear hats like turbans with red pointed tops, which link them to the executioners of the painting from the end of the Age average and that appear so much in the scene of the Beheading of the Baptist.