History of the Creche
Remembering and honoring our Savior, Jesus Christ, has been a desire for Christians throughout history. The style and manner of how artists represent the nativity in art has changed as art styles and techniques, cultural styles, and cultural norms have changed. Artists around the world also draw from their own cultural traditions to personalize the experience of the birth of Christ.
The Origin of the Nativity Scene
According to St Luke the Evangelist (2,7) Jesus was born in a stable or at least in a place where animals were kept. In fact, the word presepio (Nativity Scene) comes from the Latin verb praesepire (to enclose, to hedge, to fence) and today it means manger or crib.
The term is thought to have been used for the first time with regard to St Mary Major’s Basilica on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, known since the 7th century as “Sancta Maria ad praesepe” because according to tradition it was here that the relics of the Cradle of Jesus were brought.
The Low Latin word "cripia," meaning manger, was the origin of the terms creche, crib, krippe, krubba, szopka and wertep meaning 'nativity scene' respectively in French, English, German and Swedish, Polish and Russian.
An encyclopedia describes the Presepio as a three dimensional representation of the birth of Jesus Christ, composed of mobile figures arranged according to the artistic sense of the builder as well as realistic elements such as houses, rocks, plants etc, which is prepared for Christmas and removed by the 2nd February. As such the Presepio is closely related to the theatre because it intends to render an event remote in time and space present and real by means of fiction of a spectacular nature and at the same time, like the theatre, it cannot be separated from the scenery: in fact without scenery around the figures representing the holy event, you have a model of the Nativity but not a Presepio.
With time the tradition of the Presepio evolved in various phases. It was first found in churches, and this was the ecclesiastical period. The figures at first painted and then carved, were placed at side altars and chapels specially reserved for the Presepio, and during the Christmas Season the Presepio was decorated with lights and flowers.
Later came the aristocratic period in which the tradition of a Presepio in the home became popular among the nobility and nativity scenes were ever richer and more pretentious, but also highly artistic. This tradition gradually extended to all the social classes acquiring a typically popular character which it retained.
While some scholars see the pro-genitors of the Presepio, in votive statues representing the Lares, divinities of agriculture or spirits of ancestors originally worshipped at crossroads and later with Penates as household gods revered as guardians of the home worshipped in conjunction with Vesta (Roman mythology), in actual fact the earliest representation of the Nativity can be seen in a fresco found in the catacombs of St Priscilla, 2nd century AD, portraying the Mother and Child, the Three Wise Men and Saint Joseph or perhaps the prophet Isaiah, and above a star with eight points.
In later centuries, until about the 5th century more frescoes of the Epiphany were painted in different catacombs. A fresco found in the catacomb of St Sebastian shows a sort of manger with the ass and the ox, but Mary and Joseph are not seen.
Later in the 4th and 5th century in bas-relief work on marble sarcophagi the figures of shepherds began to appear and gradually the Presepio came to resemble the present day form with all the figures, the Child, Mary and Joseph, the ass and the ox, the Three Wise Men and the shepherds. However this was only bas-relief work, and later painted windows, miniatures, mosaics, not yet the three dimensional representation we know as the Presepio today.
In this sense scholars agree that the oldest Presepio in Italy is a Nativity Scene in marble attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio around 1289. Although some of the figures were broken or lost, this Presepio can still be seen today in the Basilica of St Mary Major in Rome. Up to 1870 many Popes came here to celebrate Christmas Mass.
St. Francis of Assisi
Tradition attributes to Saint Francis the merit of introducing the Presepio to the vast cycle of Christmas customs, when, at Christmas 1223 in the village of Greccio, near Assisi, as we are told by St. Bonaventure, he took a manger and filled it with hay, tied an ass and an ox near it and with a crowd of people from all over the neighboring countryside attended the celebration of Mass in front of the crib.
However, in Greccio there were none of the figures of the Nativity in Bethlehem, none of the characters, Mary, Joseph, the Child, so that rather than a Presepio, the crib built at Greccio can be seen as a development of Christmas liturgical ceremonies, which reconnect with the mysteries, sacred dramas in the vulgate having as their subject episodes of the Old and New Testaments, and dialogued and dramatized lauds, expressions of lay religiosity of the Confraternities, diffused at that time especially in Umbria and Tuscany.
From the 14th century onwards these religious representations became even more lavish, with the addition of mobile puppets, that some consider them the forefathers of our present day crib-figures.
The progressive degeneration of liturgical drama, ever more heathen if not evil, led the Church to prohibit them at the Council of Trier (Germany) and to encourage in their place a static re-figuration of the Nativity, and therefore the Presepio, contributing to its ulterior diffusion.
In the 1300s
The earliest Presepio or Nativity Scenes in Italy date to the 1300s although actually these were figures in marble, wood or terracotta permanently exposed all the year round in a side chapel and until the 16th century the Presepio remained as such. To mention a few, a Presepio carved in wood in 1330 for the Poor Clare Sisters at the Convent of Saint Clare in Naples; another famous Presepio in wood at Rivolta d’Adda (Cremona) dated 1480 of the school of Alemanno; a terracotta Presepio found in the Franciscan church at Busseto (Parma) the work of Guido Mazzoni.
Ambrogio della Robbia is said to be the artist of a Nativity Scene in polychrome terracotta found at the church of the Holy Spirit in Siena; no less important is an Adoration of the Child by Andrea della Robbia found at the Convent of Verna (Arezzo).
In Puglia and Lucania the Presepio had its greatest development in the 16th century, thanks to artists such as Stefano da Putignano to whom we owe, among other things, two Presepio in stone one at Cassano, the other at Polignano a mare (Bari), and Altobello Persio, author of the Presepio preserved in the Cathedral of matera.
The Council of Trent
When the Council of Trent, which closed in 1563, issued precise norms for devotion to the saints and relics it encouraged the diffusion of the Presepio as an expression of popular piety. The Jesuits, a new Religious Order constituted precisely during that Council, took over the tradition almost monopolizing it. In their hands the Presepio served for didactic purposes to win back reformed Christians and evangelise in the recently discovered lands of the New World.
The Presepio, Catholic and Mediterranean, counteracted the Christmas tree, Protestant and Nordic, started by Martin Luther. Moreover the Jesuits imposed their taste for ornamental profusion and distanced it increasingly from its original Franciscan simplicity. The 17th century saw the appearance and development of scenic effects which revolutionized the Presepio. Nativity scenes became a mirror for the culture which produced them, reflecting the society of the day and the most vivacious aspects of daily life with traits of intense realism: they were enriched with unusual and exotic elements and spectacular scenery, displaying inventive imagination typical of Baroque.
At this time the Presepio began to step out of churches to enter patrician, bourgeois homes as an object of luxury interior decoration, mounted and remounted differently year after year.
The large statues were replaced with wooden figures sometimes partly of straw with head and limbs in terracotta, wax or wood adorned with sumptuous clothing, fostering private Presepio, which had none of the monumentality and immobility proper of nativity scenes in churches.