The BackShop Journal

A Gallery of Thoughts on Arts, Culture and Orthodox Christian Spirituality

Nativity Scenes: A Tradition of Art and Worship

There is an old and fascinating tradition at display during the Christmas season: to place a nativity scene at home, in church, on the street. Nativity scene is a model of the Bethlehem cave or stable with all that gathered during the birth of Christ. It originated in Italy in the 13th century. Gradually, this tradition has spread all over the world, even beyond the boundaries of Christendom.

People can be very imaginative and creative when it comes to building a nativity scene. They can be made out of stone, wood, paper, wax, terracotta, even corn cobs. They can be small and large, artistic or representational, simple or elaborate. Sometimes they take up almost an entire city square.

Nativity scene is also known as a manger scene, crib, crèche, presepio or presepe in Italian. The figures always present are the infant Jesus, his mother, Mary, and her husband, Joseph. Other characters can appear as well, such as shepherds, sheep, and angels. Since the event took place in a barn, a donkey and an ox are typically depicted in the scene. sometimes the three Magi (also known as the Wise Men or the Kings) and their camels.

The person credited with creating the first live nativity scene is Saint Frances of Assisi, in 1223 in Creccio, central Italy, with humans and animals cast in biblical roles. He did it in an attempt to alter the celebration of Christmas from a secular tradition and gift giving to the worship of Christ. Such reenactment pantomimes quickly spread throughout Christendom. During the Renaissance, sculpted cribs, often exported from Italy, were set up in Catholic churches and homes. By the end of the 19th century, nativity scenes became popular beyond Catholic countries, and many versions in various sizes were produced.

Different traditions of nativity scenes emerged in different countries. Hand-painted santons are popular in Provence, In southern Germany and Austria, the wood figurines are handcut. Colorful szopka are typical in Poland.

One of the most fascinating nativity scenes is found in the Czech Republic, which has a long tradition of building the betlémy. It was built by Tomáš Krýza (1838-1918), a stocking weaver from South Bohemia, during a period of over 60 years. It covers an area of 60 m² (17 meters in length, over 2 meters in height) . This unique nativity scene contains 1389 figures of humans and animals, of which 133 are movable. It is on  display in Jindrichuv Hradec in the Czech Republic.  Since 1998, it is recorded as the largest mechanical nativity scene in the world in the Guiness Book of World Records.

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