The origin of the nativity scene

Today, the term crib refers to a pictorial representation of the birth of Christ or the events connected with it by means of adjustable figures distributed in a three-dimensional space. These compositions are usually only set up for a few weeks a year. In the case of engraved, painted or carved representations in two dimensions, often visible throughout the year because of their decorative or useful character, the term Nativity is preferred to crib. Until a few decades ago, the setting up of the crib was only a tradition in Catholic countries.

The oldest known crib appeared at the end of the 13th century in the basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, where the marble figures are still embedded in the floor and wall. It is therefore an unchangeable composition. In the centuries that followed, there were isolated works here and there.

During the counter-reformation, the nativity scene experienced a significant upswing in churches and monasteries, but it was not a widespread phenomenon. The Council of Trent (1545-1563) decreed a series of measures relating to religious art and recommended a greater dissemination of carved images or paintings, while strictly respecting Gospel texts (1).  In the decades that followed, the nativity scene was an ideal means of religious instruction, easily understood by the faithful who did not pay much attention to theological subtleties. They found in the representation of the birth of Christ objects of everyday life.

The simplicity of the time after the council was quickly repressed. The conversion eagerness, introduced by the Jesuit order, and the efforts towards catechesis soon led to the development of Baroque art.

In the depicted scenes, more and more figures appeared and events were described which had only a distant connection with the original reports of the Gospel. In most cases, these costly compositions were reserved for wealthy churches and monasteries as well as some noble families.

In the course of the 18th century, rationalism and new philosophical ideas led to a decline in interest on the part of the clergy. Some even went so far as to regard the custom as childish. The cribs were forbidden by religious or secular authorities for a time.  The Ordinariate of Krakow put them on the Index in 1780. As a result of this dictate, the custom of portable theatres populated with figures came into being: the Szopkas.

Thus, in 1782, 30 years after his mother, the Austrian Emperor Joseph II announced that the mystery plays performed by actors and church cribs were forbidden in his states. The latter did not reappear until 1804 in the countries of the Empire of Napoleon I (2). The French Revolution and the church closures of 1792 explain, among other things, the emergence of the Santons in Provence. Although the nativity scene adopted from neighbouring Italy was far from being widespread there, it was still well known and popular. The city of Marseille maintained numerous contacts with Genoa and Naples through its port, both cities with a long tradition of nativity scenes.

As a result of these prohibitions, the faithful tried to recreate, in their houses, the scenes that were withheld from them in the churches. Smaller figures were made for domestic use.

At the same time, several technical innovations helped reduce production costs: among them, the mass production of clay castings which, depending on the region, remained untreated or were fired. Other innovations were the use of simpler materials, sometimes picked up in nature, the use of plaster by Tuscan figurine makers or the cutting of paper.

The crib gradually evolved from an art reserved for churches and monasteries to a folk art by moving into private homes and thus into the simpler classes of society. It is also known as a "folkloric" crib when it depicts rural life in miniature form or when it is decorated with figures of local character. People from everyday life in their occupations, old professions and presenters in local costumes represent the whole traditional life in a microcosm and complete the framework of the classical figures: the Holy Family, ox and donkey, angels and shepherds, kings and sometimes their entourage. All parts of society have come to admire the birth of the Redeemer and can be found in the crib, which is now embedded in a familiar environment. The multiplicity of actors means that the observer is more likely to enjoy the aesthetics or pictorial quality of the image, while the reverent admiration of the mystery of God's Incarnation takes a back seat.

All these regional traditions have produced works that are sometimes touching and sometimes naïve. Some of their production techniques can be classified as traditional handicrafts, while others are the result of theatrical forms that can be traced back to the mystery plays of the Middle Ages.  As is usually the case in folk art, these works are of varying value, still many of them deserve attention. These traditions are diverse and numerous. Many of the figures have a common origin. They can be found in all the nativity scenes along the entire Mediterranean coast. Unfortunately, the limited scope of this article does not allow a thorough and complete examination of all these aspects.


(1) EHSER Stephanus, Concilium Tridentinum-, t. nonus, actorum pars sexta complectens acta post sessionem sextam usque ad finem concilii (17-IX-1562-

4-XII-1563), Friburgi Brisgoviae MCMXXIV, p. 1077 - 1079 - 25th session, 1st day.

(2)BOGNER Gerhard, The Great Nativity Dictionary, History. Symbolism. Faith, Süddeutscher Verlag, Munich, 1981, p. 155.