The art of the Crèche

An elaborate Neapolitan Nativity Scene (detail).

     Christmas is one of the most important holidays of the year for people of the Christian faith, and many Christian homes feature prominent display of a Crèche (French for “manger”), or nativity scene.  These small displays depict the circumstances of the birth of Jesus, and in their most basic form include figures of the Holy Family (Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus).  They are usually displayed in a stable, cave or other structure. 

     This is one of the oldest continual art forms associated with the Christian faith, going back to the time when early Christians met in catacombs to avoid persecution.  In those dark, secret tunnels they painted crude scenes on the walls, including pictures of the Nativity.

     St. Francis of Assisi is usually credited with creating the first nativity scene in 1223, when he assembled animals and actors in a cave near Greccio, Italy, to make a “living” display.  His goal was to place the emphasis of Christmas upon the worship of Christ rather than on materialism and gift-giving.  Pope Honorius II gave his blessing to this exhibit, and within a hundred years every church in Italy was expected to display a nativity scene at Christmastime. 

     Eventually the human and animal participants were replaced with statues and miniature figures to create “static” nativity scenes.  The earliest static nativity scenes date back to the 1300s.  At that time, in Italy, figures made of wood, marble, or terracotta and were permanently displayed all year long in a side chapel.  Eventually artists were employed to create richly-garbed figurines of ivory or wax posed in intricate landscapes that could be displayed as interior decorations.   Charles II, King of the Two Sicilies, enjoyed collecting these elaborate nativity scenes, and his enthusiasm inspired others to do the same.   

     The traditional nativity scene takes its inspiration from the accounts of Jesus’ birth as described in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.  Most three-dimensional nativity scenes, whether static or living, usually include shepherds, angels and Wise Men, even though Matthew’s account doesn’t mention the angels and shepherds, while Luke’s account says nothing about the Magi and the star.  Matthew’s account also says that the Wise Men didn’t find Jesus until two years after his birth.

     In addition, without any basis in scripture, many nativity scenes include an ox and ass.  This may be due to the symbolism associated with these two animals.  The ox traditionally represents patience, along with Old Testament sacrificial worship and the nation of Israel.  The ass represents humility, willingness to serve, and the Gentiles.  Some nativity scenes include other animals such as sheep, goats, cats, dogs, camels, birds, and even elephants.

     The history of the crèche has some interesting twists.  For example, in early England it became a tradition to bake a mince pie in the shape of a manger.  This held the Christ child until dinnertime, when the pie was eaten.  But in the 17th century when the Puritans banned Christmas celebrations, they also outlawed these pies, calling them “Idolatrie in crust.”  Early Protestantism frowned on any image of Jesus or his followers, so for a long time crèches were mainly a Catholic tradition.                 

     Nowadays it seems almost anything goes.  Zoo animals such as ostriches and zebras have been included in living nativity scenes.  Static nativity scenes come in all shapes, sizes, styles and materials.  They may be traditional, modernized, or humorous (for example, a catalog offers a whimsical nativity scene made up of rubber duckies dressed as the Holy Family, Magi, and a lamb).   The displays may include only the Holy Family or be so elaborate that they take up a whole room and include entire villages full of people.  In some places, the Magi, if they are included, are sometimes not placed in the scene until the week following Christmas to account for the time it took them to travel to the event. 

     The ancient art of the crèche has undergone many changes, but its purpose has not:  to remind Christians and others of the real reason for the Christmas holiday.

Published by on August 2015. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Paint Box Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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