December 19, 2006

Global Seminars & Invited Speaker Series


Salzillo's Nativity Scene, a Hispanic fantasy of humanity

Dr. Cristóbal Belda.
University of Murcia

Within the extensive catalog of works by Francisco Salzillo, if one work were to stand out for its uniqueness, it would be the so-called Riquelme Collection, better known as the "Belén de Salzillo". It is exceptional to conserve such an extensive and complete collection of pieces from the 18th century, and with its artistic quality, especially since the pieces are made of an extremely fragile material such as polychrome terracotta, the technique mostly used in its creation. The exception will be the central figure of the whole set and cardinal piece of the story: the Infant Jesus of the Nativity. Of barely seven centimeters, it is a wood carving of incredible virtuosity in the modeling and exquisite polychromy in the flesh tones. 

It is also curious to speak of the Nativity Scene as a single work, when in fact it is composed of almost six hundred pieces of no more than thirty centimeters, each one of them being a magnificent individual sculpture. However, above all, there is a sense of narrative unity and style that reaches the whole.


Nativity, by Francisco Salzillo (XVIII century)

Regarding its date of execution, it is fully accepted that it began in 1776. It is a long work that kept him busy until his death in 1783. It is therefore a work of his last years, so that in it he was able to introduce the resources and modes already tested in his images of worship and in his processional Passes. It is documented that after his death, his disciple Roque López was in charge of carrying out the passages that Salzillo had foreseen and that he could not carry out, such as "The slaughter of the innocents" and "King Herod and his guard".

Although his main reference is the Neapolitan nativity scene, which he knew very well from his own father and teacher, Nicolás Salzillo, Francisco created a new way of interpreting the topic.

The nativity scene commissioned to Salzillo by the nobleman D. Jesualdo Riquelme to be installed in his palace during the Christmas holidays, has some characteristics that make it unique. On the one hand, the figures have a complete sculptural treatment, based on a rich modeling and a brilliant polychrome. On the other hand, the scenes take place in a primarily rural environment. The architectures, of which a good part are preserved, serve as background to the most important "Mysteries", breaking the monotony of the landscape.

Like the famous Pasos de Semana Santa, the Nativity Scene was influenced by the rich repertoire of Spanish Baroque religious theater. This influence is clearly noticeable in the scenographic character of the ensemble, which is similar to the Passion processions of the Holy Week processions, based on "Mysteries" placed in a continuous story in front of a scenery that evokes the Murcian landscape.