The Origin of Nativity Scenes
“... Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged.”
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 the 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 an 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 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.
Saint 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 dramatised 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 ever more lavish, with the addition of mobile puppets, that some consider 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 author of a Nativity Scene in polychrome terracotta found at the church of the Holy Spirit in Siena; no less important is a 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.
From Baroque to our day
The baroque Presepio reached its highest artistic expression in the Neapolitan Presepio, which influenced, albeit with natural regional differences, the Presepio in Sicily, Genoa and Rome.
Apart from the persisting baroque splendor of 17th century Presepio in Naples, Sicily and here and there in Genoa, in other regions of Italy in the 18th century the Presepio was simpler, less spectacular and closer to the historic reality, with figures mainly in wood, carved in South Tyrol, and in polychrome terracotta in Lombardy and Romagna; there was also a diffusion of the mechanical Presepio a real concession of the century of reason.
Moreover, during this century under the influence of materialism and the rationalism of the Enlightenment, the tradition of the Presepio experienced a period of undeniable decadence. Only in the next century Romanticism, exalting the highest spiritual values, such as religious sentiment and sense of family and tradition, values expressed in the highest grade in the Presepio, brought it back into fashion although with profoundly different characteristics.
Closed for ever its great season of art, in the 19th century the Presepio, having lost its former great numbers of devotees and consequent use in churches and patrician homes, became simpler and spread to all the social classes, becoming a popular tradition with an accentuation of its elements of domestic rituality.
Inexpensive figures in clay, plaster or papier-mache were produced to satisfy the demand of an ever vaster public; artists were replaced by artisans who often used moulds and there was a repetition of old motives, without the addition of new original elements; moreover, in this century, the Presepio rediscovered that aspect of ingenuous and spontaneous popular expression forgotten in the rich baroque homes and, losing in sumptuousness, it gained in fantasy.
NATIVITY SCENES IN EUROPE
The tradition of the Presepio in Portugal has remote roots: representations of the Nativity were found in bas-relief on sarcophagi in the 1400, as well as in miniature bibles of the same era. However the plastic Portuguese Presepio reached maximum diffusion and highest artistic results only in the second half of the 18th century thanks to the creative genius of an Italian, Alessandro Giusti, who founded the Mafra school of barro (clay), transmitting this technique to his pupils and those who followed. Famous, among Portuguese Nativity Scenes, the ones found in Lisbon in the Cathedral and in the Museum of Ancient Art, as well as the monumental Presepio in the Estreal Basilica superior to any other in size and number of personages (more than five hundred) a masterpiece of Machado de Castro.
Most popular in Portugal, the living Presepio and Presepio in the home. On Christmas Eve before the consoada (vigil supper), the Presepio is unveiled and a large trunk of wood is placed in the hearth to burn night and day through to the Epiphany as protection from harm. The charcoal remains of the Christmas fire blessed by the Holy Child, are kept and burned during the year in times of danger to ensure protection.
Trade and communication between Spain and Italy during the Bourbon rule in Naples introduced the Presepio to the Iberian peninsula, the region of Catalonia in particular. Since that time the Presepio tradition has been restricted to large Nativity Scenes set up in churches. Figures modeled in clay, by Ramon Amadeu (1745-1821) the greatest sculpture of his day, started a school which was to influence the art of the Presepio from then onwards. Typically Italian figures found also in Spain were the heritage of Francisco Salzillo, son of a Neapolitan.
The first association of Presepio lovers, formed precisely in Spain around 1860, was short-lived. Later in 1921 in Barcelona the Asociacion de Pesebristas led to the formation of numerous such associations all over the country. Able craftsmen in various parts of the region gave rise to the Catalan School of Clay which produced authentic masterpieces, revolutionizing the centuries old style of Presepio in paper and cork, specializing in what came to be known as the historical Presepio, reproducing as faithfully as possible the scenery, environment and customs of Palestine at the time of the birth of Jesus.
Every year just before Christmas markets appear in all the main towns in Spain where people come to buy all sorts of items. There is also a tradition for children to go from home to home carrying a basket bearing a portable Presepio which they uncover as they sing Christmas carols and receive in exchange gifts and sweets.
In Provence (France), some say that Saint Francis, traditionally known as the inventor of the Presepio, followed the example of a nun known as Mother Pica who built a nativity scene in Provence, southern France in 1200. Examples of the Presepio of Provence are still found in churches in Marseilles, Aix and Avignon. However French craftsmen were certainly greatly influenced by Italian Baroque art, fashioning wooden puppet with hands and face in terracotta or wax. Presepio were built also in homes of more affluent families.
At the same time, 17th century, mechanical and talking Presepio became popular. The portable Presepio was a sort of theatre with puppets which told the Christmas story of the birth of the Saviour. However the French Revolution swept away every type of Presepio, in churches and private homes. It was only with the Concordat reached between Pius VII and Napoleon that the tradition of the Presepio returned. In the early 19th century a certain figure maker, Jean Louis Lagnel, started producing inexpensive clay statues and at the Christmas Market in Marseilles in 1803, even the poorest families could buy their clay figures and the tradition spread to the humblest of homesteads. For a long time Baby Jesus was not made of clay, considered too poor a material to portray the Saviour of the world; the Babe was fashioned out of fine wax, more precious and therefore more suited to portraying the divinity of Mary’s Son.
Nativity scenes in German speaking countries
The tradition of Nativity Scenes, as part of Christmas celebrations, is very popular in German speaking countries, particular those rooted in the Catholic faith, such as Austria, Bavaria, Cologne where, in the cathedral, according to a legend there are the earthly remains of the astrologers or “Three Wise Men”, brought here from Constantinople by the Empress Helena. In fact such is the devotion to the Three Kings or Wise Men that still today on the eve of the Epiphany children dress up as kings and the head of the family burns incense in the home and in the stable, and the initials G M B Gaspar, Melchior and Baldassar are written over the doorway as a blessing. Many regions still keep the custom of “searching for an Inn” for which small Nativity Scenes are built and carried from home to home, looking precisely for “somewhere to stay”. In Tyrol, at Thaur, the village of the Presepio, it is the custom to visit with a guide Nativity Scenes set up in all the homes which display a sign in the window: "WEIHNACHTSKRIPPE" (Nativity Scene).
Steyr, a town northern Austria, has a very rare Presepio, the only with one mechanical figures left in Europe, also has a Baby Jesus Post Office opened in 1950 with its own Christmas Eve post mark. The post office receives and answers letters from children all over the world. The larger churches in Bavaria have permanent Nativity Scenes, to which are added diorama on the life of Jesus or scenes of the Old Testament, for periods of four to six weeks in keeping with the liturgy celebrated during the year. Many cities such as Munich, Nuermberg, Augsburg are renowned for Christmas markets. People come to buy statues for the Presepio, decorations, candles, sweets and cookies and children ride in pony drawn coaches, while musicians play the world famous Silent Night carol composed by Franz Gruber on Christmas Eve in 1818, at Oberdorf near Salzburg
In England. After the death of St. Francis, the custom of having a crib spread throughout Europe. The crib in the house also became popular by the 17th century owing much of its popularity to the enthusiasm of the Franciscans. In England, the symbol of the crib was taken further in the baking of a Christmas mince pie in an oblong shape as a cradle for the image of the infant Jesus. Every parish church has its Nativity Scene inside and some have larger ones on the outside. The crib scene in the home it is not only a reminder of the first Christmas, it is also a link with all other Christians who have celebrated the joy of the birth of Christ through the ages.
In Hungary the Presepio, called Bethlehem, is portable. It can be in the shape of a church, a stable or a little chest with curtains and varies in height from 25 to 150 cm. A candle burns in front and the doors or curtains open wide to show the figures sometimes cut out of paper, or fashioned of wood or clay and then decorated with cotton wool. The Presepio is carried from house to house by children called Bethlehemsek, some dressed as angels, who sing and dance.
In Russia the Presepio, called Wertep, consists of a neo-classical style chest with two levels decorated with a Christmas Star and animated with puppets. The story is told while the people admire the scenes portrayed. The upper level shows the religious scene: the adoration of the Magi, the massacre of the Holy Innocents and the death of Herod. The lower floor offers amusing scenes of daily life which are very popular. It would seem that the texts for the Wertep were written by students of Kiev Academy, who were very familiar with the tastes and customs of the ordinary people. The Wertep gained in popularity, spreading from Ukraine, to Little Russia then to Belo-Russia, Siberia and eventually to Moscow.
In Poland the Szopka is built in the shape of a cathedral and decorated with silver-paper of different colors. It has three parts: the upper level shows angels blowing trumpets and announcing the birth of Jesus, the center level shows the Nativity scene and the lower level shows Polish peasants, shepherds with sheep and oxen, and the Three Wise men. Portable Szopke are carried from house to house by children who sing carols called Colende, and receive chocolate and money in return.
In Slovenia, since early 19th century the Alpine peoples have a traditional Family Presepio. In the living room of every farmhouse there is a Holy Corner with a shelf on which, during the year, the family Crucifix stands. At Christmas time the shelf is covered with moss to make a hill with the town of Bethlehem on its crest and the stable with the Nativity scene at its foot. The scene is held in place with a special decorated board about 70cm long and 35cm high. It is thought that initially this was simply a woman’s headscarf or shawl, which was then later replaced with a richly embroidered board.
NATIVITY SCENES IN THE REST OF THE WORLD
In Latin America, having put aside every aspect of refined art, the Presepio took on decidedly folkloristic art which emphasized blue skies and shining sun, since in these countries Christmas falls in mid Summer and Presepio are often built in the open, in gardens or patios and are decorated with all sorts of cacti.
In Mexico the Presepio is one of the most authentic expressions of typical Indian craft-work sold at every village market and which, from 1500 onwards, was enriched by the influence of European and Asian settlers. Spanish rule brings with it Iberian art which overshadows that of the Maya and Aztec peoples as we see in statues still extant in the Presepio of San Miguel di Allende and wax Presepio figures belonging to old noble families of Spanish descent.
In Brazil, the Presepio was diffused between 1600 and 1700, by the Jesuits and by missionary priests from Portugal, Spain and France, who came to evangelize the native Indians. Although it is said that a century earlier Jose de Anquieta helped the Indians to make a Nativity Scene with figures modelled in clay. While in Europe the art of the Presepio had reached its highest forms of expression, in Brazil it was introduced and began to spread first modelled on Spanish and Portuguese Nativity Scenes and later with its own characteristics and the introduction of Indian mythological figures. In north-eastern Brazil we find the Lapinhas symbolic constructions in which Baby Jesus is dressed in cloth of gold and precious gems, set on the hill top and surrounded by flowers, plants, birds and animals of all species. Typical also the two floor Presepio with the Nativity below and above the Crucifixion scene surrounded by the favorite saints of the artist or commissioner.
In Paraguay the Presepio is set up in almost every home because there is a tradition that it protects the family from harm. A few days before Christmas the people take a wooden board on which they put a mound of humid earth where rice grains are sown which soon sprout tender green leaves. On this mount they build the scene with figures and little animals made of cotton wool and pieces of colored glass to look like rocks and stones. Then the entire Presepio is enclosed with a circle of melons, pineapples and coconut flowers. Baby Jesus is placed in the cradle but in the week of the new year, the little babe is replaced with a bigger child holding in one hand a small globe of the world and in the other a cross.
In Peru the Presepio, Sammarcos, is a sort of altar with doors painted in lively colors and which containing numerous figures and scenes, religious and non.
In Africa, the first Presepio with clay figures were brought by the missionaries. It was not easy to convince the natives that the new God became a little white baby, but at the time there was no local iconography to present the new religion in a way that Africans could understand. Only later when the newly made Christians began to produce works of art, were the missionaries able to show the natives how to build their own African Nativity Scenes, often carved in precious ivory or wood, with Three Kings dressed like local chiefs in ornate costumes adorned with hundreds of multicolored beads.
In the Far East, where missionaries created Christian oases, the Presepio flourished. Although he never became a Christian, the Ruler of the Indies Emperor Akbar (1556-1605) showed remarkable appreciation for the Presepio and freely allowed the tradition to spread throughout his vast empire.
NATIVITY SCENES IN ITALY
Presepio in Tyrol, like those in most northern European countries, are generally carved in wood. During the Renaissance, figures produced by wood-carvers in Tyrol and Cologne were in great demand at the Italian courts. During the 17th century in South Tyrol, Nordic Baroque was fused with Italian elements. Figures were mainly of wood, some with moveable limbs, but also puppets with faces of wax and hats of wool or straw were produced. Neustift monastery near Brixen has a Presepio which dates to 1621. It was built at the request of Abbot Mark Hausser with twenty figures some of which are 50 cm high. Slightly damaged during bombing in World War II, it was restored and can still be admired today.
Moreover the Diocesan Museum in Brixen has forty six dioramas, mostly 18th and 19th century wood carvings and mainly the work of the Probst family. They consist of a total of some five hundred exquisitely carved figures set in backgrounds of amazing architectural harmony.
In the 19th century, besides the traditional wood, Presepio figures were also made with papier mache, paper cut-outs, stucco and wax. Famous of this period, a wooden Presepio made by Karl Sigmund Moser, acquired by the National Museum in Munich, in which an amphitheater in different styles ranging from Gothic to Rococo, reconstructs a spectacular imaginary Jerusalem.
In the region of Genoa the Presepio tradition developed later than in other regions of Italy and, as elsewhere, it was connected with the work of the Jesuit Fathers and the activity of certain confraternities with special devotion to Christmas traditions. Here, as in Naples and Sicily, the Presepio was built first of all in churches and then spread to the homes of aristocratic families.
Although complex, the Presepio in Liguria is far less “pagan” more in keeping with the Gospel narrative in its representation of the Mystery of Bethlehem than Nativity Scenes in other parts of Italy. The scenery is extremely simple and develops horizontally, with a singular lack of depth.
In this region, we do not find the wooden puppet with head and limbs in terracotta so popular in Naples and elsewhere. The typical Baroque Presepio in Genoa has carved wooden figures and the most famous wood carver was Anton Maria Maragliano.
After 1289, the year in which Arnolfo di Cambio worked his statues for the Basilica of St Mary Major in what is considered the very first round representation of the Nativity Scene, we have to wait for three centuries to find reliable information about the existence of Presepio in Rome. In fact in 1581 a Spanish Fransican Juan Franciso Nuno, charged with gathering information on the tradition of the Presepio in Rome, speaks of various Nativity Scenes found in churches and monasteries, particularly the Presepio at the Aracoeli Church which still draws great crowds, with its famous statue of the Holy Infant adorned with precious stones, carved, according to tradition, by an unnamed Franciscan friar out of a branch of an olive tree taken from the Garden of Olives in Jerusalem.
In Rome as in Naples, Genoa and Sicily, the Presepio spread from churches to patrician homes with artificial and spectacular constructions aimed to provoke more amazement than devotion, produced by all manner of artists including famous Bernini who made one for Prince Barberini.
18th century Presepios include a beautiful example at the Poor Clare sisters’ church of St Lawrence with five magnificent figures, and others in Santa Maria in Trastevere and at the convent church of Santa Cecilia. In the 19th century the Presepio spread to all levels of society with the production of inexpensive figures in terracotta. Some were built in church porches, or balconies with natural scenery and the sky as a background. One of the most visited is the Presepio built by the city’s maintenance workmen, or garbage collectors, near St Peter’s which is visited every year by Pope John Paul II. But the most famous of all is the giant Nativity Scene built every year during Advent since 1982 at the request of Pope John Paul by Vatican workmen in St Peter’s Square. The figures, 18th century larger than life, were made for Saint Vincent Pallotti and donated by the Pallottine Fathers to the Pope. The Presepio is opened on Christmas eve and one of the first visitors is the Pope himself. It is taken down after the Season and the statues are carefully stored for the coming Christmas.
In Naples around the mid 16th century, medieval symbols were put aside and the modern Presepio was born. According to tradition merit goes to Saint Gaetano from Thiene who was enraptured by the mystery of Christmas and built a large Presepio with wooden figures dressed in the clothes of the times for Christmas 1534 at the Santa Maria della Stalletta oratory beside the hospital for the incurable.
After this numerous Presepio were built in churches and convents all over Naples, but it was not until the next century that the Presepio with mobile figures appeared. The first example was produced by the Scolopi Fathers for Christmas 1627. Also worthy of mention a Presepio in Santa Maria in Portico, commissioned by Duchess Orsini, and a Presepio built by the Bottega del Ceraso for the church of St Gregory Armeno. However, the golden age of the art of the Presepio in Naples was the 18th century. With Charles III in fact the city, once again the capital of an independent region, was renovated and took its place among the famous cities of Europe, experiencing a flourish of culture and art, of which the Presepio was to be one of the most splendid expressions.
It was truly a fever of the Presepio which took over the whole city of Naples in 1700, even the King. Charles III, who had a passion for mechanics and clever hands, encouraged and personally directed court architects and scenery producers as well as building himself a Presepio in the royal apartments. Queen Maria Amelia and her ladies in waiting made the clothes for the figures with material and minute patterns especially produced in the royal fabric factory at St. Leucio. Nobles and rich bourgeois families, anxious to keep up with the King, competed with their own Presepio. The most beautiful Presepio were rewarded with a visit by the King, a much sought after recognition. The citizens were allowed into noble homes to admire the costly productions .
In the typical 18th century Neapolitan Presepio, the Nativity Scene stands on a rock and is set inside the ruins of a church; the whole scene is inevitably overshadowed by the outline of the Vesuvius volcano. Other distinctive elements are a Saracen tower, a busy market, a tavern where Mary and Joseph were refused a room, but above all the Neapolitan people who crowd the scene of the Nativity, almost suffocating it with a profusion of colors and scenes, poverty and nobility, comic figures and drama, animals, local and exotic, a procession of lame, deformed and blind contrasting the rich entourage of slaves and rich gifts following the Three Magi. This varied humanity triumphs over the Gospel story, the Nativity withdraws to the background, what counts is the spectacle, farce, drama portrayed all around it.
The typical shepherd in the Neapolitan is made of straw and wire, with wooden limbs, head in polychrome terracotta and eyes in crystal. Animals, big and small, are all in wood.
A fundamental, if not dominant component of the 18th century Presepio in Naples, is the market with all manner of wares, an explosion of shapes and colors. Together with the Hosteria, another characteristic element, there is always the market with its fruit and vegetables, hams, fish, shellfish, salamis and sausages, cheeses, olives, the butcher’s shop with beef and pork, rabbit and game, pizza, macaroni, eggs etc. In a town as poor as Naples at that time, afflicted by insatiable hunger, this gastronomic profusion, an orgy of food, submerges the Nativity Scene and distorts it, acquiring the significance of the revenge of the people over its age old enemy hunger, the revenge of an hallucinating imaginary dream-world where hunger is no more and food is abundant for all. Almost a sort of transfer: as if once a year at Christmas time in front of the Presepio, the ragged people of Naples are completely satisfied.
Examples of 18th century Neapolitan Presepio still extant today thanks to generous donations, are found in Museums in Italy and elsewhere. The most famous and one of the largest is the Cuciniello Presepio donated to the city of Naples by author Michele Cuciniello who died in 1899. The Presepio is kept at the Museo della Certosa di San Martino, on the Vomero hill; a rival for beauty and richness of personages, is the Presepio at the Royal Palace of Caserta. Not to be forgotten the Presepio in the Museum of Avellino, another in the church of Saints Cosmas and Damian in Rome, as well as Presepio collections at the National museum in Munich and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and among private collections those of the Leonetti Counts and the Catello family.
From its first appearance papier mache or cartapesta has always been a typical element of popular customs and traditions in Lecce. Although the first works in cartapesta date to the 16th century, only in the 19th century we have reliable information with regard to the school of Master Pietro dei Cristi, given this name precisely because he made religious statues and Presepio figures. At the close of the century it was mainly the barbers, short of customers, who worked with cartapesta and the barber shop was also a workshop for figures. The figures were sold at the Fair of the Puppets and Shepherds, still held in Lecce today on December 13, St Lucy’s Day. Cartapesta is made of paper made of rags (not containing cellulose) reduced to pulp, mixed with flour and then boiled in poisoned water to prevent paper-worm. The mixture is laid in several layers of varying thickness according to the size of the figure. The statues are modelled exclusively by hand the most delicate parts being finished off with a hot iron. When the statue is ready it is put to dry in the sun without any artificial procedure and then painted.
In Sicily, as elsewhere, the Presepio developed with the Jesuits under the direct influence of the Neapolitan model from which it differs in that it is more sober and essential, with a pronounced religious character, at times pervaded with intense drama thanks to the presence of original elements obviously derived from puppet theatre. The oldest and most famous Presepio is found in the Church of St Bartholomew at Scicli near Ragusa with painted wooden statues about 50 cm in height. In Sicily too, the Presepio became a feature of sumptuous interior decoration and a work of art. Every noble family had its Presepio with wax figures dressed in elegant clothes exposed in a sort of glass showcase during the Christmas season. Besides wax, a number of materials were used to fashion the personages: coral, copper, cork, ivory, mother of pearl, alabaster, sea shells, lava stone. Typical and exclusive, decorations with branches of orange and mandarin trees, grapes and Indian figs. Trapani was one of the towns where the production of Presepio flourished most in the 17th and 18th centuries, thanks to Giovanni Antonio mater, whose beautiful figures carved in wood, copied by many an artist, can still be seen today at Museums in Trapani, Palermo and also in Munich, in Germany.
SOURCE FOR THIS ARTICLE IS FROM FIDES SERVICES: SEE DOSSIER ON NATIVITY SCENES ALSO AT: www.fides.org