December 5, 2008


History and art around the Nativity Scene

D. Ricardo Fernández Gracia
Chair de Patrimonio y Arte Navarro

The history of the nativity scene is becoming known as different programs of study and monographs are published in different European and Latin American regions. Its origins must be related, more than with the laconic news of the Gospel story, with the apocrypha and, above all, with the Christmas theater that had a wide development since the times of the Age average, in spite of the prohibitions of Innocent III. A singular milestone in the history of the Nativity Scene was the staging that St. Francis of Assisi devised on Christmas Eve 1223, with papal permission, in Greccio. The Franciscans, in their masculine and feminine branches - the Clares - became the apostles of such a singular custom, combining naturalistic and symbolic aspects in the stagings.

Some late medieval and Renaissance pieces are preserved that were used for three-dimensional and scenographic assemblies of the birth of Christ. However, it would be during the centuries of the Baroque when the nativity scenes reached a definitive impulse for the development and not by chance, since in those moments it was valued, more than ever, the space, the scenographies, the popular elements, at the same time that there is a coincidence with certain values of piety and religiosity tending to captivate the faithful through the senses, with the conviction that Jesus awakens, during Christmas, in the heart of the devout souls. In this context, we cannot be surprised that it was in eighteenth-century Naples, where the genre acquired a special relevance, although it is not sustainable that from those lands such a custom arrived in Spain, since in the peninsula there are enough testimonies previous to the Neapolitan hatching.

The sources for its study in Spain are scarce, since it is almost impossible to know how the assemblies were made before the end of the 19th century. In addition, documentary references are practically nil. The notarial inventories of the houses of our ancestors, so detailed in so many aspects, barely record the existence of nativity scene figures. In most of the peninsular regions, it is in the religious enclosures, where we find the most significant examples, as much in those of monumental size, as in the reductions of those, inside the denominated showcases, that are urns or showcases with the front of glass, in whose interior appear figurines of clay or wax richly dressed.

Market scenes. Presepe Cuciniello

Market scenes. Presepe Cuciniello, XIX century. Museo di San Martino, Naples

Prof. Fernandez Gracia's talk was divided into three main parts, to discuss the Neapolitan nativity scene and the development in Spain and Navarre, respectively. Throughout the 18th century, the famous Neapolitan sets of terracotta and wood figures arrived at the Court and were destined for noble houses, in which the arrival of the Christ Child into the world came to be considered a natural event, in a world full of men who carried out their activities and who, at a certain moment, heard the news, celebrating it as something that was their own in an authentic festive microcosm, with great spontaneity and vitality and with mannequin figures, articulated, which allowed mobility.
The crib of Francisco Salzillo, made from 1776, the figures from the Murcian, Catalan, Granada and other Hispanic regions were analyzed in context when, throughout the nineteenth century, it reached many homes. 

The historical nativity scenes preserved in Navarre, both those of some cloisters and those of other collections, were the object of a detailed analysis, to show the popularity achieved by the Murcian and Granadian artists, before the school of Olot captivated institutions and the general public with its particular historicist vision, derived from the group of the Nazarenes, German painters who reacted against the prevailing Neoclassicism based on the archaeological discoveries in Palestine.

Mystery of the Monumental Nativity "Casa de Nazareth".

Mystery of the Monumental Nativity "Casa de Nazareth". Ribera (sic), XVII to XIX centuries.

A moment of Prof. Fernández Gracia's speech.

A moment of Prof. Fernández Gracia's speech.