Once in Royal David’s city?

Posted On October 17, 2006

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They’re on every street corner and for sale everywhere you can buy a Christmas tree from, but what are the origins of nativity tableaux?

It is not possible to talk about Christmas without mentioning the crib, a representation of the birth of Christ that dates back to the middle ages, where it flourished particularly in Naples in the late 17th century. However, its origins can be traced as back even further to the centuries before Christ, to the Hellenistic and Roman pagan tradition of producing clay representations of gods and goddesses to be kept in homes (called Lari, meaning the gods who protected the household).

The responsibility for creating the first nativity scene has been accredited to Saint Francis of Assisi, who in 1223 in Greccio (a small town near Perugia and the reason why in French the crib is called creche) celebrated Christmas welcoming the shepherds and cuddling a baby. Since then, the idea of creating three dimensional figures representing the birth of Christ continued, but it was largely confined to churches. The most famous 3D nativity is a marble one created by Arnolfo di Cambio (dated 1289) which is still kept in the Sistine Chapel. But this is an artistic expression, far from the popular art that followed some centuries afterwards.

In the 16th century, Saint Gaetano of Thiene staged the first tableau with figures dressed in a contemporary way. This is believed to be the first modern ‘crib’. After this artisans started to develop wooden figures with supple head and joints. Since then, the progress was steady, leading to smaller (40cm instead of life size) figures were created with a combination of different materials (wood, wax for the face, fabric for the clothes, etc.).

At the beginning of the 17th century, the shepherd as we know him today was born: clay for the head, iron wire for the body, hemp for the clothes. In this period the nativity crib became a mania: the scenes, as well as the characters, grew more and more sophisticated; with some of the most reputed artists creating their own nativity; every family, from the nobles to the common people, each according to his wealth, had their own ‘crib’ at home. Common themes were established: the three kings (the so-called Magi), the shepherds, the women (often differentiated by race), each of them with its own characteristics and expressions (astonishment, anger, ecstasy, devotion).

Christ as a baby was not the only familiar figure, each tableau also had a series of symbols: Benino, the young sleeping shepherd is the new year, the life that renews; the shepherd leading the flock is the leader of the souls of the dead; the host (innkeeper) symbolises temptation; the water, always present, is the symbol of purity; the three Magi represented the three human races; the gypsy holding a baby represented the Madonna exiled in a foreign land and so on, a real mine of symbolism.

The ‘crib’ then became a cultural phenomenon reflecting the real life of the city of Naples, which was one of the most important of the time (the famous poet Wolfgang Ghoete used to say “Napoli? That’s Paris, all the other cities are small Lion”), a crossbreed of Christian and pagan religion.

In the splendid and refined Naples ruled by the Borboni King, during the 17th and 18th centuries, many different forms of art flourished and the high level reached by the nativity can only be understood in this wider perspective: those were the years Caravaggio was producing his masterpieces, the famous Posillipo School, reputed for the stunning Neapolitan landscapes influenced by some of the greatest European painters of the time who used to live in Naples for a while (Turner, Courot and Bonington) was reaching its height (an exhibition of a great student of this school, Giacinto Gigante, was held in Cyprus in 2001 at Leventis Museum).

At the same time, the Reggia di Caserta, an amazing architectural masterpiece, 45,000m² with 1,200 rooms, 1,790 windows, 34 great staircases, walls with diversified thickness to assure a natural air conditioning, was built upon a Vanvitelli design. The Saint Carlo Theatre, the oldest European theatre still in use, was inaugurated in 1737, and the most famous artists, Metastasio, Bach, Rossini, Verdi, Puccini, Mascagni, performed there. In the 18th century Naples became the European capital of music, giving birth to a Neapolitan school with masters such as Paisiello and Cimarosa and, later on, to the Young school of Opera Romantica by Leoncavallo, Giordano, Cilea and Alfano.

More recently, during the 19th and 20th centuries, with the increasing prominence of the middle classes, nativities started to show characters intent on their work, losing some of the previous symbolism but keeping a strong tie to real life. Just think about one of the most well known comedies by Eduardo De Filippo, a great Neapolitan author, Natale in casa Cupiello (Christmas in Cupiello’s house), where the nativity occupies the initial scene and gives the start to the play, with the father asking his lazy son if he liked it or not. In his negative answer are the origins of the story of the family, an incredibly true fresco of family life in a popular Neapolitan household.