THE CHRISTMAS CRIB
By Nesta de Robeck
Copyright 1956 BY NESTA DE ROBECK
The Bruce Publishing Company, Milwaukee
JOANNES A. SCHULIEN, S.T.D.
+ ALBERTUS G. MEYER
Die 9 Iulii, 1956
Rosary College Dewey Classification Number: 232.921
Library of Congress Catalog Card Number: 56-11151
THE following pages are not a study of Crib art: they aim at
making a little sightseeing journey to find out what Cribs have
looked like in different countries and centuries.
This concerns all of us, for among what Mr. Henry Adams so
happily calls our "two hundred and fifty million arithmetical
ancestors" there surely must have been Crib enthusiasts in Italy,
in Germany, in France, or England, or Spain. Some one of them may
have helped to arrange a Presepio in Naples or have worked at
Nativity altars in Germany or England, or acted in a Mystere in
France. And why, please, should our ancestors be excluded from
the company of those civilian pilgrims who must have been such an
encumbrance to the Crusaders? I should like to think of one
heaving up the heavy oak beams sent by Edward IV of England to
re-roof the basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem, or, best of
all, let him have been among those privileged persons who
listened open-mouthed to the story told by a Judean shepherd two
thousand years ago.
I wish to acknowledge my indebtedness above all to Professore
Rudolph Berliner's standard text book "Denkmaler der
Krippenkunst" which contains pretty well all that is known about
Christmas Cribs with most valuable illustrations; also to Signor
Angelo Stefanucci, the foremost Italian Crib connoisseur and
enthusiast, and founder of the Italian Crib Society who has most
generously helped me with photographs; and not least to Messers
Burns, Oates, Washbourne who have allowed me to make use of some
of the material in my own book "The Christmas Crib" published by
them and now out of print.
The Publisher also wishes to add his word of thanks to Rev.
Aloysius S. Horn, Director of The American Christmas Crib
Society, for his courtesy in supplying photographs of American
List of Illustrations
I. The Earliest Crib
II. How the Story Was Told
III. The Crib of the Artists
IV. The Crib of the Liturgical Drama
V. The Ordo Stellae in the Liturgical Dramas
VI. The Crib of Saint Francis
VII. The Influence of Saint Francis
VIII. The Crib in Renaissance Art
IX. The Nativity Plays of the Renaissance
X. The Later Crib
XI. The Later Crib in the South
Sicily and Rome
Provence, Spain and Portugal
XII. Nineteenth Century--And Now
Christmas Crib Societies
LIST OF ILLUSTRATIONS
1. (Frontispiece) Stucco Crib Group by Francesco da Pietrasanta,
in Santa Maria Maggiore.
2. Grotto of the Nativity, Bethlehem. The Silver Star in the
Pavement at the Left Marks the Place of Christ's Birth; the Altar
at the Right, the Place of the Manger.
3. The "Salus Populi Romani," Picture in Santa Maria Maggiore,
Said to Have Been Painted by St. Luke.
4. Reliquary of the Crib, in Santa Maria Maggiore.
5. One of the Earliest Representations of the Magi (Third
Century). From the Catacomb of Domitilla.
6. Magi From a Fourth-Century Sarcophagus.
7. An Early Medieval (Seventh Century) Ivory From Ravenna,
Showing the Cycle of Nativity Scenes (Anderson).
8. A Monza Phial Showing the Annunciation to the Shepherds and
the Magi (Seventh Century).
9. A Seventh-Century Gold-Glass
10. Medieval German Nativity Scenes.
11. The Nativity (Twelfth Century) at Chartres.
12. Pulpit Detail From Florence. The Lute Played by the Shepherd
in the Foreground Is One of the Earliest Representations of That
13. Mosaic of the Nativity at Palermo. Note the Midwives in the
Right Foreground Preparing to Bathe the Divine Child (see Chapter
14. The Annunciation and Visitation From the Thirteenth-Century
Psalter of St. Louis.
15. The Annunciation to the Shepherds (Twelfth Century), Paris.
16. The Magi, St. Joseph's Dream, and the Flight Into Egypt, From
an Eleventh-Century French Manuscript.
17. The Magi, From the Door of the Cathedral at Pisa.
18. The Magi, Pistoia.
19. Adoration of the Magi, Mosaic in the Church of Santa Maria in
20. St. Francis at the Crib, Greccio, 1223. Painting at Florence
21. The Franciscan Crib, Florence. These Two Painting Are From
the School of Giotto.
22. The Nativity, by Giotto, Assisi.
23. The Nativity, by Fra Angelico, Florence. The Simple
Tenderness of the Franciscan Spirit is Evident in This Work
24. The Shepherds, by Taddeo Gaddi, In the Church of Santa Croce,
25. Figures of the Magi, Among the Earliest of Their Kind. Made
for a Crib Group by Arnolfo di Cambio, Santa Maria Maggiore.
26. Bas-Relief by Giovanni Pisano.
27. The Nativity, and the Adoration of the Magi, by Orcagna,
28. The Nativity, by Andrea della Robbia, Siena. This Work Shows
Strong Franciscan Influence.
29. A Fifteenth-Century Flemish Crib.
30. Begareelli's Crib (Sixteenth Century) at Modena.
31. The Visit of the Magi. Bas-Relief at Verona. This Is
Companion Panel to Number 37.
32. Nativity Altar by Hans Degler, Angsburg.
33. The Brandani Crib, at Urbino.
34. The Nativity (Fifteenth Century) in Volterra. The Figures Are
by Rosellino; the Background by Benozzo Gozzoli.
35. The Magi, Volterra.
36. Remaining Figures From the Crib by Alemanno. Made for San
Giovanni dei Carbonari, Naples, in 1478.
37. Nativity Altar, Verona.
38. Barocci's Nativity (Sixteenth Century), Madrid.
39. Mechanical Crib (Sixteenth Century) Made by Hans Scholttheim
for the Court of Saxony. Now in Dresden. (Description, Chapter X)
40. Seventeenth-Century Crib, by Stammel.
41. Angel From the Eighteenth-Century Crib of the Ursulines at
42. English Alabaster Nativity.
43. Eighteenth-Century German Crib. Now in the National Museum,
44. The Magi, by Bartolo di Fredi, Siena. The Pageantry Inspired
by the Renaissance Nativity Plays Is Evident Here.
45. Crib Originally in the Ursuline Church at Bozen. Now in the
National Museum, Munich.
46. An Eighteenth-Century South German Crib, National Museum,
47. Another South German Crib of the Eighteenth Century, National
48. Section of Crib by Moser (Nineteenth Century). The Artist's
Emphasis on Architecture Can Be Noted (see Chapter XII).
49. Crib by Mayr, Showing the Influence of the Nineteenth-Century
50. Neopolitan Crib of the Eighteenth Century. Now in the Museum
of Cluny, Paris.
51. The Neopolitan Inn (Eighteenth Century), Agresti Collection,
52. The Inn of Another Neopolitan Crib, Catelli Collection,
53. Two of Sammartino's Shepherds, Giusto Collection, Naples.
54. An Eighteenth-Century Neapolitan Crib, on Which Several
55. Crib Figures by Mosca.
56. Four Figures by Sammartino.
57. The Flight Into Egypt and the House of Nazareth. Both Are
58. Sicilian Crib by Matera (Eighteenth Century). Now in Munich.
59. Santons, Marseilles.
60. Crib in the Ara Coeli Church in Rome (Felici).
61. A Spanish Ivory Crib of the Seventeenth Century. Actual size.
62. Czechoslovakian Crib.
63. Modern Tyrolese Crib by Joseph Bachlechner, Museum for Folk
64. Polish Szopka. In Poland the Crib Often Formed Part of a
Marionette Show (Appetiti).
65. The Visit of the Magi. From the Congo (Dessena).
66. A Chinese Crib (Appetiti).
67. Nativity Group in Terra Cotta by Robert C. Kopnich, Dayton
68. Christmas Crib, St. Luke's Church, River Forest, Ill. by
Frederick Doyle. Design and Figures Are of American Origin.
69. Crib Designed After Paintings and Drawings of Albrecht Durer.
Formerly in the Convent of Our Lady of the Pines, Fremont, Ohio.
70. Crib in St. Anne's Church, Fremont, Ohio. Designed by Rev.
Aloysius S. Horn. The Figures Were Carved in Italy.
71. Outdoor Crib, Designed by Charles William, for the City of
72. An American-Mexican Crib in Our Lady of Guadalupe Church,
I. THE EARLIEST CRIB
EVER since the Incarnate Son of God was born in the cave of
Bethlehem Christians of each century and country have wanted to
represent the scene. We must, therefore, be prepared to find a
great deal of variety in their representations. A Crib may be
very simple with all attention focussed on the central figures;
or it may be very elaborate, and that too is justified because
the whole world has to be gathered round the manger.
Before deciding how to make our own Crib we want to see what
other people have done, and our first step is to turn to
Bethlehem where Crib history starts in that grotto and manger
which are spoken of in the Synoptic and Apocryphal Gospels, by
St. Justin Martyr, St. Epiphanius, and Origen who says that he
"saw the grotto and in it the manger where Christ was swaddled."
The Emperor Hadrian was so determined to smother the Christian
tradition that he ordered a wood to be planted and a sanctuary to
Adonis to be built over the place of the Nativity, and this
profanation lasted until A.D. 326 when the basilica of the
Nativity was begun by St. Helena and Constantine.
In his vivid letters St. Jerome describes Bethlehem and how he
and his companions entered into the cave and adored "the place
where the ox had known his Master and the ass the cradle of the
Lord." However, he acknowledges one great disappointment: "if
only I might have seen the Crib of clay in which the Saviour lay!
Under pretext of honour we have substituted one of silver."
Devotion has never been more cruelly misdirected! Perhaps some of
the dust of the original manger mingled with the earth which was
carried away by innumerable pilgrims who, according to St. Jerome
and St. Augustine, journeyed to Bethlehem from every country.
Among these pilgrims Etheria, who was also an excellent
sightseer, expatiates on the wonders of the churches of Golgotha
and Bethlehem and on the services in which she took part. Other
pilgrims, notably Anthony of Piacenza, Adamanno, Arculfo, and the
Venerable Bede, speak of the Grotto as it was in the late seventh
or early eighth century, its walls covered with marble and
mosaic, and about this time the church was saved by a curious
coincidence. During the Persian invasion the enemy noticed the
Magi dressed in Phrygian cloaks and caps carved on the facade,
and they took them for worshippers of Mithras bringing gifts to
his altar. This mistake saved the church, but either the greed of
the Persians or of warring Christian sects must have been at work
for the silver Crib known to St. Jerome disappeared. But the
grotto chapel of Bethlehem remains, one of the holiest places of
our earth, with its silver star set in the pavement and the
inscription: "Hic de Maria Vergine Jesus Christus natus est."--
"Here Jesus Christ was born of the virgin Mary."
From Bethlehem we turn to Rome where the cult of the "Praesepe"
began in the Basilica now known as Santa Maria Maggiore, but
whose original title was Sancta Maria ad Praesepe. Legend records
that the site of the church was miraculously indicated on August
5, 352, when dwellers on the Esquiline were surprised to see part
of the hill covered with snow. It was revealed to a Roman
patrician and his wife that the Blessed Virgin desired a church
to be built on this spot, and when it was discovered that Pope
Liberius had had the same dream the church was immediately begun.
Little trace, however, remains of the Liberian basilica; work on
the present church was chiefly carried out under Pope Sixtus III
in the middle of the fifth century. The church was dedicated to
the Blessed Virgin in honour of the title "Mother of God" which
had been decreed by the Council of Ephesus, and the great arch of
the nave is decorated with scenes in mosaic referring directly to
the maternity of our Lady. Only the Nativity is missing, an
incomprehensible omission had there not existed a separate chapel
commonly called the Domus Sanctae Dei Genetricis--the House of
the Holy Mother of God. Tradition says that it was a crypt,
probably built with stones from Bethlehem and copied from the
original Grotto. Its chief treasure was a picture of our Lady and
the holy Child, said to have been painted by the evangelist St.
Luke. This wonder-working picture, which came to be known as the
Salus Populi Romani, is the one crowned by Pope Pius XII in the
Marian Year of 1954 and is still revered in Santa Maria Maggiore.
Gradually the "Domus" came to be known as the "Praesepe" (crib,
manger), and similar chapels were erected in other churches;
moreover, in the seventh century, the name "Praesepe" acquired
new significance for it was then that the famous relics said to
have been parts of the manger were transferred to Rome. It is
impossible to be certain what the six small boards really were:
we do know that St. Jerome and his friends in Bethlehem collected
numerous relics, some of which passed to Constantinople and
gradually found their way to the West. During the siege of
Jerusalem Bethlehem was in great danger and St. Sophronius the
Patriarch is thought to have sent the relics to Rome for
safekeeping in the sanctuary of Sancta Maria ad Praesepe.
The first historical mention of the relics of the manger occurs
in the eleventh century, but long before the Middle Ages the
Praesepe chapel was being lavishly decorated with gold, silver,
precious stones, and a wealth of costly ornaments. At Christmas
the picture of our Lady was exposed upon the altar, and here the
Pope celebrated the first Mass of the Nativity, the ceremonies
continued throughout the night and the centre of the Roman
Christmas was the Praesepe chapel. There is no doubt that the
cult of the Crib took form first in Bethlehem, and then in Rome,
and it has been said that there existed an ancient custom of
placing figures in the manger. However that may be, it is evident
from early Christian writings that the imagination of the
faithful saw them there: let us try to recapture something of
II. HOW THE STORY WAS TOLD
FROM the earliest times Christians loved telling each other
arresting tales about the Holy Family, and one cannot help
wondering what was said by the great grandchildren of those who
had actually heard the shepherds' story. Of countless legends
some gradually solidified into the Apocryphal Gospels which St.
Jerome denounced as the "deliramenta Apocriphorum," but what he
condemned many of his followers enjoyed. They wanted to hear
about the ass, and the ox bought by St. Joseph to sell in the
fair, of the miraculous hay of the manger, of the cave filled
with light at the entrance of our Lady, of the midwives being
fetched by St. Joseph to testify to the Virgin Birth of Christ--a
legend which naturally infuriated St. Jerome. They revelled in
marvellous stories about the Magi and the adventures of the Holy
Family during the Flight into Egypt regardless of whether they
were fact or fiction, and these stories constantly reappear under
different forms for a good fifteen hundred years.
The apocryphal legends have to be remembered, yet what tinsel
they are, not only in comparison with the Gospels, but also with
the writings of the Fathers and great Christian poets. St. Ephrem
dwells on the mystical birth of Christ through the ages, the
source of light and fruitfulness to all creation: he tells how
first the shepherds come to worship Him who unites shepherds and
sheep in one fold, of the field labourers adoring Him who has
come to cultivate our fields, to fertilize our hearts and to take
from them the seed of wheat for the eternal harvest, of the
vintners worshipping the New Vine, the divine Vintner who will
make all vines fruitful and all grapes sweet. The carpenters come
to worship the foster Son of Joseph who has given man a new yoke;
the newly married worship the Child of a Mother who is the Bride
of the Holy Spirit, children come to welcome Him for their games
who "hast brought the height of heaven down to the measure of Thy
little ones." There follow the women and girls and this gathering
of all people round the manger leads the way for what has become
one of the chief characteristics of the Christmas Crib. St.
Ephrem speaks of Christmas Day itself on an almost Franciscan
note, the day which, like the Lord Himself, is the friend of
young and old alike. Through all ages it returns each year,
growing old with the old, renewed with the little child; each
year it comes and passes, and comes again with unceasing joy. One
of the loveliest passages is the invitation of the Eastern
Christmas Office: "Come, o faithful, let us go and see where
Christ is born, let us follow the star with the Magi, Kings of
the East; a pastoral sounding of flutes is to give way to the
songs of the angels, for what shall we offer Thee o Christ who
for us hast appeared on earth as Man? Each of Thy creatures gives
Thee thanks, the angels bring Thee a hymn; the sky a star; the
Magi gifts; the Shepherds adoration; earth a grotto; the desert a
manger; and we Thy Virgin Mother." The sanctity of the manger is
beautifully sung by St. Ambrose, the manger out of which darkness
was put to flight by new light: "O holy manger! Thy Crib eternal
is sacred to all peoples for ever." In another hymn Prudentius
exclaims, "Oh King of eternity how holy is the manger which
serves as Thy cradle, venerated by all times and nations and even
by dumb animals," and in a Eucharistic prayer St. John Chrysostom
prays to Christ that "as Thou didst deign to lay Thyself down in
the manger of a cave, so now deign to enter the manger of my
sinful soul and defiled body."
We might quote many other similar passages from the great Greek
and Latin writers in which the dramatic tendency is almost as
marked as the lyrical. For those who could understand its full
significance there was the sublime drama of the liturgy so rich
in elaborate symbolism, while dialogues proved extremely useful
for the expounding of the faith. A dialogue inevitably suggests
dramatic action, and very early the Church had to face the
question of how much or how little "action" could be permitted
during the Christian services and especially during the homily.
On this subject the Fathers were as divided as any later council
on ecclesiastical discipline. With paganism still vigorous and
the classical theatre an active, dangerous attraction, the
Christian authorities wavered between sweeping condemnation and
the desire to provide a counterinfluence and counterattraction.
How insidious and powerful the influence of the theatre was we
can gather from the repeated objections of the Church authorities
to the popular songs, instruments, and dances which heretics
tried to bring into Christian services. Some bishops were
completely uncompromising, others slightly more tolerant. The
Council of Laodicea decreed that only the clergy were to enter
the pulpit and declaim and sing. Already the controversy over
sacred drama had begun.
Happily the Church was able to fight the pagan theatre not only
with decrees but with the far stronger weapon of the genius of
her own writers, and in the great homily literature the Christian
drama developed slowly but surely. The lovely Canticle of St.
Romanus of Emesa links together the different episodes of the
Nativity and it is impossible to read it and not think of St.
Bernard and Dante. It has a companion in St. Romanus' beautiful
Lament of our Lady beneath the cross; if, as it has been
suggested, these poems were generally known and sung in Italy in
the twelfth century, they may even have been known to Jacopone da
Todi, and may be part of the background to his great Nativity and
Passion lauds. The sixth century homily included singing,
recitation by one or more persons, perhaps some action; the
homilies of such writers as Sts. Proclus, Basil, Efrem, or
Gregory of Nazianzus were to their time what the liturgical
dramas, mystery plays, and oratorios were to later centuries.
They appealed to the imagination and emotions quite as much as to
the intelligence of the audience which evidently was in the habit
of showing its feelings, else why was the deacon told to call for
order: "Silentium habete." No doubt necessary, but an
undemonstrative congregation would only have meant an inattentive
It is uncertain how far the homilies were definitely "acted," but
with them indisputably the liturgical drama was already born.
Gradually there developed a regular cycle of scenes which became
the stock-in-trade of every Nativity drama. The scenes were
roughly as follows: the Prophets, which included passages from
the Old Testament; a dialogue between God the Father and the
Archangel Gabriel, in which the latter is told not to alarm the
Virgin; a soliloquy of the Archangel before the house of Mary;
the Annunciation followed by a dialogue between Gabriel and
Joseph after which the voice of God reassures St. Joseph. This
part of the drama ends with a council of Devils. The second "act"
opens with the journey of our Lady and St. Joseph to Bethlehem,
followed by the nativity in the Grotto, the fetching of the
midwives, the hymn of the angels, the adoration first of the
shepherds, then of the Magi. It concludes with a scene
representing the fury of the Devils. The final "act" has the
Magi's visit to Herod, his consultation with his councillors, the
massacre of the Innocents, the vision of St. Joseph and the
Flight into Egypt, and the cycle is completed with the battle
between Christ and the Devil with the final victory of our
Redeemer. There is nothing immature in this ambitious spiritual
drama which aimed at bringing home to literate and illiterate the
facts of the Redemption.
We should like to know, of course, how these dramatic homilies
were presented: St. John Chrysostom speaks of our Lady placing
the Child in the manger and taking Him on to her knees; and St.
Gregory Thaumaturgus finds the sight of the Crib the most
eloquent comment on the Incarnation. "My eye," he says, "rests on
the carpenter and cradle, on the young Child and His Mother. I
see the Child lying in the manger while Mary the Virgin stands by
serving with Joseph." These words were probably meant
symbolically, and both in East and West, at least for a time, the
altar was considered as the manger. But apart from the altar how
was the scene represented; what did the audience actually see?
Contemporary iconography helps us toward an answer.
III. THE CRIB OF THE ARTISTS
IN SOME ways the Nativity was the easiest of Christian subjects,
and the tendency of Graeco-Roman artists was to adapt to their
Christian purpose what they saw around them. They generally show
our Lady sitting under a shed, sometimes nursing her Son, or
holding Him on her knees, but more often He lies in a basket-like
manger between the ox and ass while the shepherds approach from
one side and the Kings from the other.
With the waning of the Roman Empire iconography changed and the
Byzantine tradition of the Grotto became paramount. Western eyes
grew accustomed to seeing the Byzantine Nativity cycle presented
in all the arts and it was pervaded by two currents of feeling,
the transcendent and the human. Sometimes our Lady sits upright
as though to show that the birth of Christ involved no human
effort or suffering, or she may hold Him majestically on her
knees as the Infant King: sometimes, especially in Carolingian
art, the newborn Christ lies, not in a manger, but on the altar
with the cross above Him or in His halo; or again He lies in a
manger between the ox and ass while the Virgin reclines on a bed-
-an arrangement adopted to emphasize our Lord's humanity. Such
variations were never simply the fancy of individual artists but
were the expression of a definite theological point of view.
We find the recumbent Virgin already on the ivory throne in
Ravenna, on the cross in the Sancta Sanctorum of St. John
Lateran, or on the little phials of Monza. These latter are
precious having been brought to Queen Theodolinda about A.D. 600,
probably filled with earth from Bethlehem, water from the Jordan,
or oil from some sanctuary lamp. They have Greek inscriptions and
show the Nativity scene with the Magi wearing the famous Phrygian
caps. Such phials and relics stimulated the fervour of those who
could not travel; how eagerly they must have received the objects
and listened to the tales of pilgrims more fortunate than
themselves who could tell of the Christmas ceremonies in the
Grotto of Bethlehem. Christians who could not reach Bethlehem in
their Christmas services wanted to feel themselves there, and in
some mosaics and paintings the figures are grouped in a Grotto
obviously taken from descriptions of the cave of the Nativity.
It is certainly not to be wondered at that the human aspect of
the Nativity should have asserted itself so forcibly. Tenderness
is in each line of the Gospels and of the Fathers, and writers
such as George of Nicomedia or Symeon Metaphrastes interpreted
the gospel story in such a way as to foreshadow the Italian
Trecento, while the Byzantine Baby can sometimes be seen hugging
His Mother almost like a Della Robbia.
The age of the Baby is an interesting point: when He lies in the
manger there is sometimes the suggestion of helpless infancy, but
once on His Mother's knee He is often quite a large Child.
Throughout the centuries few artists have faced the reality of
the Creator of the universe as a newborn baby.
At first St. Joseph does not appear; when he does he is nearly
always represented as an old man leaning on his stick; he is the
Within a relatively short time the midwives become attendants who
are seen giving the Child a bath, while the angels, besides
filling the heavens with their praise, sometimes hold the star in
place. There is also the very important scene of the annunciation
to the shepherds, and in Byzantine art as also later, there is
the clear individualization of the shepherds' response to the
vision. The shepherds are shown as simple men in capes and hoods
with their dogs, and one of them invariably plays a flute or a
double pipe of reeds. This shepherd has come straight down from
Arcadia; in classical art he was even crowned with flowers and
the first earthly music to welcome the Christ Child was the
"pastoral melody" of "shepherds skilled upon the tuneful pipes."
The musician shepherd has always kept his place at the Crib, and
does so still.
Until the thirteenth century the Magi were invariably Phrygians,
who with cloaks blown out by the wind hurry forward holding their
gifts, their pointed caps on their heads, and all more or less
alike; in this, iconography took little heed of current legends.
No doubt it was the extraordinary richness of what we may roughly
call Byzantine iconography of the Nativity which made its reign
so long. In the finest work, as in rough provincial productions,
the same scenes, the same gestures are repeated with
choreographic order. When sufficient space was available the
whole Nativity cycle was presented, otherwise the scenes were
restricted to the Annunciation, the Nativity, and Epiphany, and
this cycle of scenes was made familiar in mosaic, in stone, in
painting, gold, silver, ivory, and embroidery. A powerful
spiritual impulse had produced a formula of vast range reaching
from the homely to the heights of symbolical grandeur, a formula
so highly charged with significance that it could lend
distinction to even inferior compositions. The Christian impulse
had infused new life into all the arts, uniting them in the
service of that wonderful synthesis which is the liturgy.
The Nativity of Christ celebrated at the altar was represented on
the walls, commented on in sermon and songs, and the dramatic
representation of the Mystery became increasingly prominent in
the Church services. Let us suppose ourselves back in some
cathedral of Europe during the twelfth century: it is the
Christmas season, and in the ceremonies of our Lord's birth we
shall find the Christmas Crib.
IV. THE CRIB OF THE LITURGICAL DRAMA
THE Liturgical Drama of the West also developed from the
homilies, but more immediately and obviously from the Tropes and
Sequences in which Christian Latin poetry is so rich. This poetry
went hand in hand with the wonderful flowering of Plain Song
music: the Liturgical Drama was Music Drama, and to appreciate
the full charm of the surviving texts one must hear them sung to
their own lovely melodies.
The early Nativity Drama took place either before or after Matins
or even formed an Introit to the Midnight Mass, and for it a
veiled picture of our Lady and the Child was placed on the altar,
or alternatively veiled figures, a light doing duty for the Star.
The little scene was extremely simple, and it was acted by two
groups of clerics representing the midwives and the shepherds. To
the question: "Whom seek ye in the manger? shepherds say," the
answer came: "We seek Christ our Lord, a Child wrapped in
swaddling clothes according to the angel's word."
This basic dialogue was varied and enlarged according to local
taste, and the culminating point was reached when the midwives
pulled away the veil from the picture or figures announcing the
birth of Christ to which the shepherds replied with a threefold
Again the scenic arrangement is of special interest to us in our
search for the Crib, but it is not easy to be sure of details. In
later mediaeval times the altar did not always represent the
manger, which seems to have been a movable object. In the vague
stage directions it is generally mentioned as something so well
known as to need no description. It seems reasonable to think
that the Crib of the Dramas resembled what we see in contemporary
art: there does not appear to have been any fixed rule either as
regards the construction or position of the Praesepe; probably it
varied according to the architecture of the Church. In Padua for
instance, it stood in the middle of the choir in front of the
altar; at Fleury near the door; in Rouen behind the altar of the
Cross. There was room for variety seeing that such dramas were
acted from England to Sicily in every country of Christendom.
Repeatedly we hear of an "imago" of our Lady and the Holy Child
being placed in the manger covered with a lair linen cloth;
sometimes figures were used, and marionettes were already in
vogue. There are suggestions, too, of human actors; for instance
Gerhard of Reichenberg speaks of a "crying Child in the manger
with His Mother."
At what date the ox and ass appeared as performers in the dramas
is uncertain, but they had always been present in Nativity
iconography and their presence was sanctified by Isaias'
prophecy--"The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master's
Crib"--and in the beautiful Christmas antiphon: "Oh great mystery
and admirable sacrament that God should lie in the manger between
the animals." The adoration of the Christ Child by all animals is
a theme of the Apocryphal Gospels, and in parts of Spain the
Midnight Mass was called the Mass of the Cock who, beating his
wings cries, "Christus natus est."--"Christ is born." The ox,
lowing, asks "Ubi?"--"Where?"; the goats and sheep bleat
"Bethlehem" and the ass lifts up his voice with "Eamus."--"Let us
It was not long before the shepherds appeared in clothes suited
to the part; they approached the Praesepe singing, "Transeamus ad
Bethlehem"--"Let us go over to Bethlehem" guided by an angel, and
after their dialogue with the midwives they remained in the choir
during Mass in which they sang certain prayers and responses. At
the end of the service the officiating priest turned to them with
another question: "What have you seen, O shepherds, say; tell us
what appeared to you on earth." To this they answered: "We saw
God our Saviour born and round Him the choirs of angels.
Alleluia." This dialogue was repeated during Lauds sometimes with
additions and the shepherds reappear as guides of the Magi.
V. THE ORDO STELLAE IN THE LITURGICAL DRAMAS
WITH this Epiphany play the Nativity drama made a long stride
forward in elaboration, but with the Praesepe as its centre. In
the Middle Ages the numerous ancient legends had more or less
crystallized, the number of the Magi was generally accepted as
three and the twelfth century provided the familiar names of
Melchior, Gaspar, and Balthasar. The fairly precise stage
directions describe them: Melchior had to be old with a flowing
beard and violet tunic and cloak; Gaspar, young and fair and
beardless with a red cloak; Balthasar, dark of skin and hair in a
red tunic, all the clothes to be of silk and cut on a Syrian
pattern. The Magi must walk "cum gravitate" singing the antiphon
"O quam dignis," and before them must go a light representing the
Star. Each of the Magi either bears his gift or has it carried by
The different episodes were acted in different parts of the
church, and the drama must have required considerable stage
management. After the Magi's visit to Herod came the arrival in
Bethlehem indicated by a light above the altar of the Cross and
when the Kings had found the Praesepe with the Mother and Child
they prostrated themselves in adoration and offered their gifts
singing the antiphon which told of gold for the divinity of
Christ, incense for the true God, and myrrh for the suffering of
His humanity. After this came the scene of their dream and
The psychological clash between the Magi on one side and Herod
and his councillors on the other brought a new note into the
Drama, and before long Herod had become the regular stage
villain, "furore accensus," according to one text, and the
spectators were no doubt entertained to see him and his
attendants untidily dressed and armed with wooden spears come
bursting into the choir during Matins. Flinging his spear down
Herod defiantly read one of the lessons while his attendants
rushed about beating the clergy with inflated bladders.
Once popular comedy had entered the liturgical dramas it proved
almost impossible to control. The original simple scenes were
developed on more ambitious lines; other scenes were added, new
characters appeared. In France especially it became the fashion
to intersperse the Latin text with verses in the vernacular, and
the Balaam incident in the scene of the Prophets developed into
the riotous "Fete de l'Ane"--Feast of the Ass--just as the scene
of the Holy Innocents led to the revels of the "Fete des Fous"--
Feast of Fools--and the antics of the Boy Bishop. The elaborate
stage of the Latin Liturgical Drama can best be studied in the
Benediktbeurn text; with the various scenes it contains the
original music, and probably lutes and pipes and the other
instruments which appear in the sculptured Nativities were also
used in the plays.
These were the dramas and this was the Praesepe known to all the
mediaeval saints and writers. Perhaps some of the clergy hoped
that by allowing greater latitude to the plays these might
provide a counterattraction to the Jongleurs' jovial performances
in every fair, but the rowdiness of Herod, Balaam, and the Boy
Bishop inevitably roused vehement opposition among stricter
spirits. Protests were heard in many quarters: the wise abbess of
Hohenburg wished to discriminate between ancient traditions
"worthy of veneration," and unseemly "modern" innovations, and
pointed out that everything depended on the spirit in which the
play was performed. The old controversy between the Church and
the theatre flared up again, and in 1207 Pope Innocent III in a
letter to the archbishop of Gniesen denounced the dramas and
condemned those who took part in them. A gloss added later in the
century seems to indicate that the censure was not aimed at
Nativity and Easter plays performed with reverence: still the
Pope's Letter without the later gloss cannot have been without
effect and it explains why St. Francis asked Innocent's
permission to set up his Praesepe in Greccio for the Christmas of
VI. THE CRIB OF SAINT FRANCIS
WITH St. Francis we come to a turning point in Crib history.
Popular opinion is just as mistaken in thinking that he
originated the custom of the Crib as it is in ascribing almost
exclusively to him an attitude of tender compassion toward
animals. Early Christian literature is full of tales illustrating
the intimacy of saints and beasts; and in his youth Francis
surely saw Nativity dramas and the then familiar iconography of
the Nativity. His extraordinary originality lay in being able to
transform and renew whatever he touched and to impress upon it
forever the stamp of his unsullied genius and love.
Francis must often have prayed in the Praesepe chapels in Rome,
and when he visited the Holy Places in 1220 something of himself
will have remained there, but something of their spirit returned
with him. For Francis Christmas had always been the "feast of
feasts" bringing light and hope into a dark world, the day when
"heaven and earth are made one" and "God condescended to be fed
by human love." If Christmas fell on a Friday he swept aside
fasting, wishing to see even "the walls rubbed with fat," every
poor man entertained by the richer, and double rations given to
every animal, but especially to all oxen and asses. Could he but
have spoken to the Emperor the first favour he would have begged
would have been a decree ordering corn to be scattered on the
roads so that all birds, "but especially our sisters the larks,"
should also feast.
The idea of celebrating the feast in a special way seems to have
occurred to him suddenly in the Advent of 1223. He was in Rome
and before leaving he asked the Pope's permission to keep
Christmas in his own way so as to realize outwardly the poverty
of Christ in the manger.
He sent for his friend Giovanni Vellita, a landowner of Greccio
where Francis had a favourite hermitage. "If now it seems good to
thee that we should celebrate this feast together, go before me
to Greccio and prepare everything as I tell thee. I desire to
represent the birth of that Child in Bethlehem in such a way that
with our bodily eyes we may see what He suffered for lack of the
necessities of a newborn Babe and how He lay in manger between
the ox and ass."
Giovanni hastened to obey, and, says St. Bonaventure: "Many
brothers and good people came at Francis' bidding, and during the
night the weather also was beautiful. Many lights were kindled,
songs and hymns were sung with great solemnity so that the whole
wood echoed with the sound, and the man of God stood by the
manger, filled with the utmost joy and shedding tears of devotion
and compassion. By his order the manger had been so arranged that
Mass was celebrated on it, and blessed Francis, the Levite of
Christ, sang the Gospel and preached to the people on the
Nativity of Christ our King, and whenever he pronounced His name
with infinite tenderness he called Him the "little Babe of
Bethlehem." St. Bonaventure, who certainly must have had the
account from an eyewitness, goes on to tell of the vision of
Giovanni who saw a Babe, seemingly lifeless in the manger until
the Saint awoke Him out of sleep; and he comments: "nor was this
vision untrue, for by the grace of God through His servant
blessed Francis, Christ was awakened in many hearts where
formerly He slept."
St. Francis' other biographer, Thomas of Celano, tells how
"Greccio was transformed into a second Bethlehem, and that
wonderful night seemed like fullest day to both man and beast for
the joy they felt at the renewing of the mystery." He emphasizes
the unusual consolation felt by the officiating priest, and the
strong, sweet, clear voice of Francis as he read the Gospel and
preached "saying all manner of tender things on the birth of the
Poor King in Little Bethlehem. Repeatedly whenever he wished to
name Jesus Christ, inflamed with immense love he called Him Babe
of Bethlehem pronouncing the words almost like the bleating of a
sheep, and his mouth seemed full, not only of his voice, but with
emotion for when he named Jesus or Babe of Bethlehem, he licked
his lips as though to taste the full sweetness of the words."
Only an eyewitness could have given Thomas that detail.
This, then, was Francis' Nativity celebration; it had no
connection with the Nativity Dramas in that he did not
impersonate anyone, nor did the priest or brothers. There were
neither the traditional figures nor dialogues, and there may or
may not have been a figure in the manger. Nevertheless the
Nativity of Our Lord was realized that night as fully as perhaps
it ever can be. The love, the devotion, the concentration of each
individual became one with that of Francis, and in Sabatier's
words: "he was no longer in Greccio; his heart was in Bethlehem."
VII. THE INFLUENCE OF SAINT FRANCIS
ST. FRANCIS' Christmas at Greccio was not only an echo of
Bethlehem or the expression of individual devotion evolved from
older forms; in the fullest sense it was an augury of the future,
and within a few years the Friars had carried it to every country
St. Bonaventure says that Francis desired this particular
celebration "to move the people to greater devotion," and moved
they were to new enthusiasm and new joy. The Franciscan spirit
gathered up all the old tendencies to stress the human and
pathetic aspects of the gospel story and the least lettered could
understand the Greccio Christmas Crib as well as any doctor of
theology. It had an eloquence, a tenderness and single-minded
simplicity of intention that the elaborate Nativity drama had
lost. To those Umbrian peasants listening to Francis the Nativity
of Christ must have been something as real as the birth of their
own children: he gave into the arms of his followers that most
precious of all babies, the Bambino Gesu.
From that moment the cult of the Christ Child is intensified: in
the Franciscan world the Son of God becomes the loveliest of
earth's children, the dear Little Lord Jesus who is everybody's
Brother. We see Him throwing His arms round His Mother's neck
while artists dwell caressingly on the perfect Baby's body that
lies kicking in the straw or opening His eyes in delight at the
sight of a bird held out by St. Joseph. The angels become lovely
dimpled babies too, playfellows who sing and play and offer Him
fruit when they are not kneeling round the manger all "reverent,
timid, and obedient." A new spring of poetic imagination had been
released, and at its source stood Francis. On one point, however,
certainly the Italian painters and even the poets do not follow
Francis who saw the newborn Christ in the reality of what that
implies. We repeat: In art the age of the King of Heaven in
Bethlehem is almost never that of a baby a few hours old.
The mark of Francis remained on every art; he who was one of the
first of Italian poets writing in the vernacular was followed by
any number of laud singers, and nativity lauds of Italy were
first cousins to the carols of France and England, of Germany and
During the fourteenth century two other works appeared, both of
major importance to Nativity poetry and iconography: 'The Golden
Legend" of James of Voragine, and the "Hundred Meditations" on
the life of Christ probably by an Italian Franciscan. Of the two,
"The Golden Legend" is on far the grander scale, and in the
chapter on the Nativity the author repeats many of the older
legends and also gives an account of the Sybil who had found her
way into the Nativity Dramas together with the Prophets. It was
she who, when the Emperor was consulting her, showed him a golden
circle round the sun in the midst of which was a beautiful Virgin
holding a Child in her arms. And when the Emperor asked for an
explanation of the vision he heard a voice saying: "This is the
altar of heaven and this Child is greater than thou art,
therefore we adore Him." This legend accounts for the foundation
of the Ara Coeli church in Rome, and for the presence of a man
and woman, the Emperor and the Sybil in many later Italian Cribs.
"The Golden Legend" also gives a vivid description of the Magi's
journey which may well have served as the guiding text for a
great Epiphany procession instituted by the Dominicans in Milan
when different scenes were enacted at various points of the city.
The Milanese could not forget that the relics of the Three Kings
had been transferred from their church of Sant' Eustorgo to
Cologne by the chancellor of Frederick Barbarossa.
The "Hundred Meditations" were even more popular than "The Golden
Legend," and though the book was intended only for the spiritual
exercises of a Poor Clare nun it was read throughout Europe. It
is full of tender human details, as for instance when it tells
that the Little Lord Jesus was painfully circumcised which made
Him and His Mother cry, but He gulped down His sobs because He
could not bear to see her so sad. And the author admonishes the
Poor Clare that she should emulate the adoration of the
shepherds, "do thou likewise and ask His Mother that she may give
Him to thee to hold and caress in thine arms, and look well on
His face, and reverently kiss and be glad of Him. And this thou
canst do in all confidence for He has come to dwell among sinners
for their salvation." He also says that during the Christmas
season not a day should pass in which Christians have not visited
our Lady and her Son in the Crib while meditating on "their
poverty and humility and great dignity."
To these we must add the Revelations of St. Bridget of Sweden who
was also a follower of St. Francis, and who strikes the direct
note of one who has seen and not only imagined a scene. She
writes: "When I was present by the manger of the Lord in
Bethlehem I beheld a Virgin of extreme beauty wrapped in a white
mantle and a delicate tunic through which I perceived her
virginal body. With her was an old man of great honesty and they
had with them an ox and ass. These entered the cave and the man
having tied them to the manger went out and brought in to the
Virgin a lighted candle which having done he again went outside
so as not to be present at the birth. Then the Virgin pulled off
the shoes from her feet, drew off the white mantle that enveloped
her, removed the veil from her head laying it beside her, thus
remaining only in her tunic with her beautiful golden hair
falling loosely over her shoulders. Then she produced two small
linen cloths, and two woollen ones of exquisite purity and
fineness which she had brought to wrap round the Child to be
born, and two other small cloths to cover His head, and these too
she put beside her. When all was thus prepared the Virgin knelt
with great veneration in an attitude of prayer; her back was to
the manger, her face uplifted to heaven and turned toward the
"Then, her hands extended and her eyes fixed on the sky she stood
as in an ecstasy, lost in contemplation, in a rapture of divine
sweetness. And while she stood thus in prayer I saw the Child in
her womb move; suddenly in a moment she gave birth to her own Son
from whom radiated such ineffable light and splendour that the
sun was not comparable to it while the divine light totally
annihilated the material light of St. Joseph's candle. So sudden
and instantaneous was this birth that I could neither discover
nor discern by what means it had occurred. All of a sudden I saw
the glorious Infant lying on the ground naked and shining, His
body pure from any soil or impurity. Then I heard the singing of
the angels of miraculous sweetness and beauty. When the Virgin
felt she had borne her Child immediately she worshipped Him, her
hands clasped in honour and reverence saying: 'Be welcome my God,
my Lord, my Son.'
"Then, as the Child was whining and trembling from the cold and
hardness of the floor where He was lying, He stretched out His
arms imploring her to raise Him to the warmth of her maternal
love. So His Mother took Him in her arms, pressed Him to her
breast and cheek, and warmed Him with great joy and tender
compassion. She then sat down on the ground laying the Child on
her lap and at once began to bestow on Him much care tying up His
small body, His legs and arms in long cloths, and enveloped His
head in the linen garments, and when this was done the old man
entered, and prostrating himself on the floor he wept for joy.
And in no way was the Virgin changed by giving birth, the color
of her face remained the same nor did her strength decline. She
and Joseph put the Child in the manger, and worshipped Him on
their knees with immense joy until the arrival of the Kings who
recognized the Son from the likeness to His Mother."
We cannot leave "Bride's Book" without remembering its English
reader, Margery Kempe, that enthusiastic pilgrim who was in the
Holy Land early in the fifteenth century and recorded her
sensations at length. Her keen imagination was perhaps an
exception to the general rule; nevertheless carols, lauds, plays,
pictures, and sculptures prove how many people were sufficiently
like her to account for some of the most attractive passages and
details of contemporary art and literature. They all contributed
to the Christmas Crib.
VIII. The Crib in Renaissance Art
TOWARD the end of the thirteenth century Arnolfo di Cambio was
entrusted with the restoration of the Praesepe chapel in Santa
Maria Maggiore, and at that time the body of St. Jerome was
translated from' Bethlehem to the celebrated chapel in Rome.
Little now remains of Arnolfo's design except the figures of the
Kings for a Nativity group, some of the very earliest of their
kind. These prove to us that the Crib was beginning to assert
itself as an independent entity, although the chief development
still lay with sculpture, painting, and the ubiquitous plays.
Nothing in Nativity iconography is more striking than the
difference in the bas-reliefs of Nicola and Giovanni Pisano,
working in Pisa also in the later thirteenth century, close to
each other in date, far apart in spirit. Nicola's Nativity is
classical, his figures full of a pagan pride and self-reliance
that would certainly never have sought a King in the "rich
poverty of the manger." Giovanni was influenced by French
iconography: the Christ Child lies in the manger between the ox
and ass, while His Mother leans forward and tenderly uncovers His
face for it is she who shows Him to the world. We notice, too, a
midwife dipping her finger into the bath to feel the temperature
of the water. Orcagna presented the new gestures with even
greater beauty and we find ourselves before another
interpretation of the Nativity scene. The Byzantine Grotto
gradually disappears, the humanity of our Lord has become so
explicit that there is no need for the recumbent position of the
Virgin. Once the match had been set to this train of imagination
it spread like wildfire as we see in the various Books of Hours,
in the "Bihle des Pauvres" and the "Speculum Humanae
Salvationis." Here no detail is too human or too small and we
revel in them together with the artists. The scene of the
annunciation to the shepherds comes to the fore, rich in
possibilities, the landscape gains in importance and the Saviour
is surrounded with the sun shining on fields and water, luminous
mountains fading into the distance, while trees in leaf rustle in
the breeze, rabbits skip in the grass, and all creation smiles in
the light of the Redemption.
If the northern artists revelled especially in the Nativity and
Holy Infancy, the southerners revelled even more luxuriantly in
the Epiphany. Painters who had probably tried their hands
successfully as stage managers saw the procession of the kings as
a gorgeous theatrical "trionfo." Charmed as they were by the
increasing pageantry of Renaissance life they set the Epiphany in
the sumptuous world of courts with everyone dressed in marvellous
and most expensive clothes. It was the feast of all that was most
elegant when kings of France got themselves painted as the Magi
in whose honour Jean le Bon instituted an order of chivalry.
Throughout the Renaissance imposing dramatic processions were the
fashion: by the end of the fourteenth century the papal censure
had been forgotten and Mysteres in France, Mystery Plays in
England, Sacre Rappresentazioni in Italy, Misterios in Spain,
Geistliche Schauspiele in Germany were flourishing with renewed
vigour. The reciprocal influence of the plays and the plastic
arts is everywhere apparent. Just as the Middle Ages had carved
the scenes of its dramas on the facades and doors and pulpits of
its cathedrals, so the Renaissance took its version of the same
scenes and set them on screens and in the reredos to its altars.
We have only to think of the great screens in France where in the
cathedral of Chartres, for instance, the life of Christ was
illustrated with more than two hundred figures, or the beautiful
alabasters of England, or the great carved and painted altars of
Germany. The German Nativity altar with the Crib as its centre
was often simply called "Bethlehem." The retablos of Spain went
still further in grandeur and elaboration, and Italy had Nativity
altars, generally of more modest proportions.
The Della Robbia family made a number of these altars, and Andrea
especially is a poet of the Nativity in the pure Franciscan
tradition. The Della Robbia Nativity is nearly always restricted
to the manger with the adoration of the Shepherds, the apparition
of the angels being placed in the background. It is almost a
protest against the elaboration of other works. The Visitation
figures at Pistoia give us a pang of regret for what a full
Nativity group might have been.
Nativity altars in majolica became popular, no doubt partly owing
to their relative cheapness, and sometimes stucco figures stand
out against a painted background as in Volterra. Pietro da
Pietrasanta made a lovely group of stucco figures for Santa
Maggiore in Rome, Guido Mazzoni one for Modena cathedral, rather
later Begarelli who was also a successful stage manager, made
another for Modena, and Brandani one for an oratory in Urbino.
Another custom was that of placing groups of figures in shrines
or chapels, often near a Franciscan convent, scattered about a
wooded hill which became a Sacro Monte where pilgrims could
follow the life of our Lord or some saint in the groups of life-
size figures each representing a particular scene. It was a still
life and devotional mystery play. The earliest Sacro Monte was
that of San Vivaldo in Tuscany where the Nativity and some other
groups were by the Della Robbias, but by far the most ambitious
was the rather later Sacro Monte of Varallo where our Lord's life
was presented in fifty chapels, eleven of them dealing with the
Nativity cycle, the work of Gaudenzio Ferrari and other artists.
Throughout this time the idea of the Crib as something
independent was asserting itself in every country, and the
medieval name "Praesepe" became "Crib" in England, "Creche" in
France, "Krippe" in Germany, "Presepio" in Italy, "Belem" in
Portugal, "Nacimento" in Spain. Carden on the Moselle has a
remarkable group of figures of the Magi belonging to the mid-
fifteenth century: there are wooden figures of our Lady seated on
the ass with the Christ Child in the Emmerich Museum, obviously
the Flight into Egypt, while dusty old prayer books contain hymns
and devotions "to be sung in front of the Crib."
A remarkable group of figures at Chaource gives an idea of a
French creche; another is at Sainte Marie d'Oleron in the
Pyrenees, yet another at Nogent-le-Rotrou, and at Aubevoye in the
Eure the Cardinal de Bourbon, uncle of Henri IV, built a chapel
whose crypt was copied from the Grotto at Bethlehem. In France as
elsewhere the earlier figures were either of carved and painted
wood, or sometimes gilt as at Saint Maximin du Var, or they were
of modelled and painted clay; china was used later while the
Orleans museum has a collection of glass, wax, and wrought iron
It is, however, to Italy that we must turn for more numerous
early Cribs, and tradition says that the custom has always
existed in the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi. There are signs
of it in many places of Umbria, Tuscany, and the Marches, and
especially in Naples when we first hear of a Crib given to the
church of Santa Chiara by Sancia, wife of Robert of Anjou. Then
in 1438 eleven figures were carved by Martino de Jadena for the
church of Sant' Agostino Maggiore and a little later Giovanni
Alemanno was commissioned for a Presepio of forty-eight figures
for San Giovanni dei Carbonari and a few have survived as has the
Presepio made by Giovanni da Nola for San Giuseppe dei Falegnami.
Another was made for Montoro, the nuns of the Sapienza asked
Annibale Caccavello for fourteen figures, while Pietro di Bergamo
was commissioned for twenty-eight figures for the church of San
Domenico Maggiore and they were set in a grotto hollowed from
stones said to have been brought from Bethlehem.
The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were feeling their way
toward the Crib as we know it; but still where it was always to
be found was in the Mystery Plays of England, the Mysteres of
France, the Sacre Rappresentazioni of Italy, the Misterios of
Spain, the Geistliche Schauspiele of Germany.
IX. THE NATIVITY PLAYS OF THE RENAISSANCE
WHEN the religious plays returned from their temporary exile they
were no longer the Latin Liturgical Dramas, but plays in the
vernacular, rich in local customs. In Italy, for instance, they
emerged among the Laud singers of Umbria, Tuscany, and the
Abbruzzi in the form of a dramatic "Devotion." Sometimes there
was more sermon and less action, sometimes the reverse. A
platform near the pulpit served as a stage. Nazareth, Jerusalem,
Bethlehem were indicated by a signboard, while journeys had to be
imagined until the plays became more ambitious and demanded the
Before long the preaching was set aside and the more popular
elements of the Liturgical Drama were revived and continued. Some
plays were directly influenced by the "Hundred Meditations":
everyone, no matter how poor had acquired the right to look into
the divine nursery of Bethlehem to help in holding the Baby, in
bathing and dressing Him, and St. Joseph is made busy in many
Especially in the north the Crib took the form of a regular
cradle, the best that money could buy since it was to serve for a
King. Some stood on rockers, some were suspended to side posts
like that known as the cradle of Charles V in Brussels, and if
possible it contained a relic of Bethlehem. In the Beguinages of
Flanders, in convents and pious families such cradles were
habitual, the little King's sheets were marvels of needlework,
and fringes of silver bells tinkled for His delight. If the
cradle stood in a church, the rocking of it became part of a
service performed by the clergy and congregation singing
Noels and carols sang of scenes from the apocryphal Gospels, and
these were repeated with ever increasing elaboration in the
plays. The Office de l'Ane (Drama of the Ass) was expanded into
the streets as well as churches while each year the scene of the
inn became more rowdy, to contrast with the arrival of one poor
family for whom none had room.
The shepherds appeared bringing gifts from their own provinces,
cloth from Flanders, grapes from Burgundy, truffles from
Perigord, while the bitter hardships of an Appennine winter echo
in the Abbruzzi play when the shepherds offer the Madonna their
own cloaks, apologizing if they smell of goats, and turn to the
audience with the words: "Think how the Blessed Virgin had not so
much as a sack or cloth to protect her, nor fire to warm the icy
air, and that the Lord of the world had neither mattress nor
cushion on which to lie, nor garment in which He might be
In Tuscany the shepherds and their dogs have names, and they
bring wood and cheeses and chestnuts, while Randello, who is the
musician, plays the bagpipes and offers a flute or pipe to the
Bambino. On their way to the manger the shepherds sometimes meet
the Devil who tries to turn them aside, and when they arrive St.
Joseph greets them, the benevolent father of the family. There is
no reference to the theme of his doubts of the Blessed Virgin
which evidently offended Italian taste but can be met in English
Mystery plays of the same period. When the shepherds leave the
manger they often meet the Kings and the midwives with their
children and an animated street scene follows further enlivened
by a crowd of beggars who are given the characteristically
Franciscan name of the "Little Poor of the Lord."
In every country the stage manager of the plays was a great
personage; he was responsible for training the actors, often men
and boys belonging to a Confraternity, and his reputation
depended on the novelty and excitement he was able to produce, if
not in the plot, at least in its presentation. The more ambitious
plays had heaven and hell on higher and lower levels from the
platform where the action was performed, and the more revolving
lights and flowers there were in heaven, and the more vivid the
devil belching smoke and swallowing sinners into immense jaws,
the better the public was pleased. Fifteenth-century Parisians
were delighted with "un enfer noir et puant"--"a hell black and
Many great Renaissance artists were quite ready to design Court
pageants and "triumphs," allegorical intermezzi and mystery
plays, and Brunelleschi is credited with having adapted the
"mandorla" to scenic purposes. It was an oval framework adorned
with lights and flowers and was convenient for letting down
actors and lifting them up and thus varying entrances and exits.
A picture by Carpaccio shows a church prepared for a Sacra
Rappresentazione which might also be combined with a procession
in which case it was enacted practically all over the city. In
Florence Feo Belcari and Lorenzo il Magnifico wrote plays which
the Medici children helped to act, and particular occasions were
marked by especially gorgeous plays. Macchiavelli describes one
Epiphany drama which gave work to everyone for six months, adding
what was perhaps true that Lorenzo encouraged such shows to keep
people's minds off politics. It is well known that Benozzo
Gozzoli's frescoes in the Riccardi chapel show the chief
personages who gathered in Florence for the Council of 1439: a
further point of interest is that the magnificent clothes worn by
these grand people correspond pretty closely to those used by a
guild of Laud Singers, to which Giuliano dei Medici belonged. The
play was held in the church and cloister of San Marco and was
subsidized by the authorities.
Mantua, too, staged a splendid Sacra Rappresentazione with so
many lights that Isabella d'Este recorded her alarm, and what the
Gonzagas did in Mantua, the Estes did in Ferrara, the
Montefeltros in Urbino, and the Visconti in Milan none of whom
were going to be outdone by Florence. In Modena another most
elaborate Nativity drama was staged by Begarelli.
In Naples, too, the plays had an immense vogue from puppet shows
at street corners to dramas such as that of Aversa which took a
week to perform and covered the whole life of our Lord. In these
dramas devotional feeling was inextricably mixed with local
customs and superstitions; no one was to be excluded from
Bethlehem, not even the gypsy who had come to tell the Bambino's
fortune and give Him a pot of honey. The Neapolitan plays were
entitled the "Monarca dei Matti" (Monarch of Fools) and the
"Vescovello" (Boy Bishop) and some scenes so closely resembled
the Feie des Fous as to suggest that during the Angevin rule the
French plays had become familiar to the Neapolitans.
Spain, too, was greatly given to Nativity plays by such authors
as Gil Vicente, Inigo de Mendoza, and Lope de Vega: nearly always
the Spanish Nativity was graver than the French or Italian, but
there as everywhere protests were again being heard, and again
opinion was divided. Sant' Antonino the archbishop of Florence
forbade his clergy to take any part in the buffooneries of the
mystery stage, and demanded that if there were to be dramas in
the churches they must be devotional: St. Charles Borromeo the
archbishop of Milan went further, and as to Savonarola he
denounced all plays in terms that would have done credit to
Tertullian. The tide was flowing in favour of the strict, and the
Council of Trent put an end to the plays in churches, but not
before a number of serious fires had occurred. The churches
indeed, were no longer adapted to the type of performance the
Mystery Plays had become, and gradually everywhere they were
transferred to cloisters, squares, or other buildings. Thus the
plays disappeared from the churches, but they left there the
central point of interest and their very raison d'etre, the
X. THE LATER CRIB
HAD we been in Rome for the Christmas of 1517 we might have been
present at the Mass of St. Gaetano of Thiene in the Presepio
chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore when he saw in the manger a living
Child Who was put into his arms by the Madonna, while in a vision
he followed all the scenes of the Infancy. After this St. Gaetano
never failed to set up a Crib, using it as his pulpit and often
inviting shepherds to come with their bagpipes. St. Charles
Borromeo and St. Philip Neri both loved and venerated the
Presepio chapel where St. Ignatius said his first Mass; and as to
Pope Sixtus V he could not rest until he had had it completely
restored. The century which sanctioned the demolition of the old
St. Peters had no qualms about radical changes to the Presepio
chapel of Santa Maria Maggiore, and very little of the original
The very serious devotion of the Counter Reformation brought deep
understanding to the Nativity; the elaborate clothes and
processions disappeared, the manger is that of any stable, and
the only light streams from the newborn Child and shines first of
all on His Mother Who adores Him lying in the manger or on the
edge of her cloak. Devotion to our Lady rose in fervour with
every attack on her unique position.
All this contributed to the popularity of the Christmas Crib and
the demand for Cribs came both from churches and from private
families. Even in the fifteenth century the Visconti of Milan had
one, and a century later Buontalenti in Florence arranged a
Presepio for his pupil Francesco, the son of Cosimo de' Medici,
first Grand Duke of Tuscany. In this the heavens opened, angels
flew about and came down to earth and the figures "walked toward
the holy Manger assuming attitudes which seemed entirely
natural." It is unkind of fate to lose Buontalenti's mechanical
Crib which may have been inspired by the Three Kings on the clock
tower of Venice.
At Munster Hans Brabender made a still grander clockwork Crib
where the Magi bowed to the Christ Child while the clock played a
hymn. But the most ingenious mechanical Crib was perhaps that now
in the Dresden museum which was made about 1589 by Hans
Schlottheim of Augsburg as a present to the Elector Christian I
from his wife Sophia. The lower part has a clock and silver gilt
plaques showing scenes from Bible history, from designs of the
medallist Stephanus Delaune: the scenes are divided by statuettes
of the Apostles and two other figures of a Roman soldier and a
weeping woman recall the Massacre of the Innocents. The second
tier is roofed like a house, and above again on four brackets is
a sphere with embossed and engraved signs of the Zodiac and the
northern constellations. When the clock was wound the globe
opened showing God the Father surrounded by angels, while part of
the wall on the second tier slid back and the manger appeared:
the Angels then descended from heaven; to a well-known carol
tune, St. Joseph rocked the cradle, the ox and ass rose from
their knees, while the shepherds and kings passed before the
manger. Surely the children of the Saxon court were only allowed
to enjoy such a plaything on Sundays!
Other German-speaking royal children were also enjoying Cribs,
and a Bavarian princess Maria married in Graz wrote to her
brother in Munich in 1577 asking for a painted and carved ox and
ass; then she thanks him for eight angels, and yet again for four
shepherds, three Kings, a servant, St. Joseph, and "old Simeon."
This good lady had fifteen children and says "little Anna means
to complain that she cannot keep the ox and ass for her very own"
so her mother suggests that an extra pair should be sent: "if you
really want to give them to her, let them be large and very
strong for they will have to stand a lot of hard wear." She
specifies that the figures are to have stuff clothes: "I don't
care much for figures carved and painted, and they are horribly
expensive and I am horribly poor." She repeats the injunction two
years later when she orders our Lord, our Lady, the twelve
Apostles, adding that the figures must be jointed, and able to
stand, sit, and kneel "which should be quite easy if they are
properly made with wire." Another order for trumpeters was sent
four years later. One of the children for whom this Crib was made
was afterward Kaiser Ferdinand I, a champion of the Counter
Reformation. Another brother who was studying for the priesthood
in Ingolstadt sent his brothers and sisters a new Crib with a
special carpenter from Munich to set it up. Other records show
Crib entries: clothes for different figures are ordered, the
wages paid to sewing maids, carvers, and painters, and from the
fifteenth century onward the Crib had been welcomed into homes of
all kinds. The mystery of Christmas must have been emphasized for
German children by the habit of making Nativity altars to shut
like cupboards, then with the opening of the doors the Crib was
made visible. Crib making has always appealed to the German
genius for toys, and also to that deep sentiment only to be
described as the "Weihnachtsstimmung," and in both Catholic and
Protestant Germany the "Krippen hauslein" has always stood
beneath the Christmas tree, completed by the singing of that
loveliest of all carols the "Heilige Nacht."
In the seventeenth century no one understood the value of the
Crib better than the Jesuits, and wherever they went in Germany
their churches inevitably had Cribs which were sometimes extended
into including the whole Christian Year rather like a miniature
Sacro Monte. Naturally each convent had its Crib which,
unluckily, were nearly all dispersed during the dissolution of
the religious orders. One, formerly belonging to the Servite nuns
near Innsbruck, is now in the Munich Museum; it is the typical
grand German rococo Crib with many scenes and wonderful trappings
round its exquisite dolls.
Many German churches possess detailed accounts of their Cribs,
generally of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, and
everywhere Crib making was a lucrative occupation to a number of
people; in the Bavarian and Austrian Alps whole families
specialized in the carving of large Crib figures just as much as
for tiny Cribs to travel with their owner. They still continue
The Crib artists of Germany were extremely numerous: in the
sixteenth century Hans Krauth and Theodor Goth were well-known
potters. Then Munich asserted itself as a centre of Crib art and
there are admirable figures by Niklas, Knoller, Boos, an animal
specialist, by Gunther, a famous Baroque artist renowned for his
angels, by Schuster and Nissl, Schwanthaler and Kieninger and
Giener, all of them artists of marked individuality. With the
advent of the dressed doll, miniature painters such as Hans Kager
and Hans Schor were called in for the delicate work on faces and
hands: it was Absam who introduced the landscape of Palestine as
his Crib background and in him and Mayr the Crib of German
romanticism found its chief exponents.
Each part of Germany produced elaborate baroque and rococo Cribs,
but alongside of these, as in no other country, there were Cribs
of genuine folk art with their traditional dress, customs, and
material. And longer than anywhere else the Christmas marionette
show, the "Krippenspiel," drew crowds in the fairs, especially in
Austria, unaware no doubt that they were witnessing the last echo
and survival of the Mystery Plays.
Germany is a fascinating country for the Crib lover, but we must
turn back to the South.
XI. THE LATER CRIB IN THE SOUTH
WITH the dawn of the seventeenth century the making of Presepi
had become a recognized trade in Naples, and the artists and
craftsmen engaged in it were commonly known as "Figurari." They
too were numerous and among the first group the most famous were
Vaccaro, Falcone, and Somma: crib figures, generically known as
"pastori" were becoming a little world to themselves. The
earliest Neapolitan cribs had all been fixed groups of statues;
but a new technique was introduced when Vaccaro made a set of
figures for Santa Maria in Portici which were dressed in stuff
From that moment the Figurari tended to discard the solid figure
in favour of the puppet with a body of rags wound on wire, and
feet, hands, and head exquisitely modelled, then baked, coated
with size, and painted. The finish of every tiny detail was
accentuated when the Figurari became employed in the china
factory of Capo di Monte which had been transferred at one time
to Spain but was brought back to Naples. Some of the Figurari
were invited to work in Spain taking with them Italian models,
bringing back Spanish ones. When a Neapolitan King married a
Saxon princess there came in designs from the Meissen factory,
and again other Figurari found work in Germany.
The advent of the puppet started a whole series of new trades,
chief among them the dolls' dressmaker, and as in Germany the
modelled and painted figure and the dressed puppet existed side
by side. In the eighteenth century Naples is reputed to have had
four hundred Presepi in its churches, and many private houses
also had their "Bethlehem" on which the owners spent large sums,
encouraged to do so by a famous Dominican preacher, Padre Rocco,
who made the Presepio his special theme. He was a father to all
the outcast and poorest of Naples: when the police did not dare
to light the streets for fear of the Lazzaroni, Padre Rocco
appealed to his friends on the ground that it was a public
disgrace to leave the Madonna in her shrine alone in the dark.
The streets were lighted. Padre Rocco found time to rush from
house to house spurring on laggards and among his enthusiastic
followers were the Kings Carlo III and Ferdinando IV. The King
superintended his own Presepio and the whole court was kept busy:
each detail for the puppets, each tiny ribbon or flower or buckle
was carefully planned, and some of the stuffs were especially
woven as when one of the Magi wore a mantle which was an exact
reproduction of that worn by Carlo III as Grand Master of the
Order of San Gennaro.
Very quickly the Presepio became a genre picture of Neapolitan
life; often it was as theatrical as any Mystery Play, presented
by artists fully equipped in the elaborate stagecraft of the
time, accustomed to design and arrange the magnificent secular
and religious Triumphs which were then so popular. Often they
represented the complete Nativity cycle of scenes, but above all
the episodes of the shepherds, the Magi, and the Inn. While the
shepherd puppets were being put in place, real shepherds from the
mountains of the Lazio and Abbruzzi could be seen in the streets
of Naples throughout the Christmas Novena, and three times every
day with flute and bagpipes they went the round of all the
shrines of our Lady to serenade her and "console her for all she
suffered on the road to Bethlehem."
The scene of the inn gave the Figurari a chance they certainly
made the most of; there could be seen every variety of maccaroni
and fish, sausages and wines from Ischia or Capri, while a
countryman unloads a cart of victuals, a salesman displays his
goods, beggars hold out a hand, minstrels play the guitar or
hurdy-gurdy, and the guests eat and drink and gamble. It is an
"Allegro con brio" from a Neapolitan opera and is continued in
the procession of the Kings decked out like princes from the
Arabian Nights, laden with jewelled gifts, accompanied by slaves,
camels, elephants, monkeys, horses, birds, and dogs, and this
colorful cavalcade was completed by another of beautiful eastern
princesses known as Georgine. The great ladies and gentlemen of
Naples were to be found in the Crib alongside every kind of
person from every province, cityfolk and countryfolk, all dressed
in the right clothes, and in a setting which included every
conceivable object known to daily life, each and all represented
in perfect miniature models. No wonder that the Presepio gave
work to such a host of people, of all the professions and arts.
Many of the private Presepi took up a number of rooms in a house.
In that of the lawyer Signor Rafaello Sorvello the crowd was so
great that guards had to keep order. Signor Terres in his showed
the most topical and latest scenes, that of Don Sdanghi was the
work of a lifetime and he would not sell it even to the King. It
is now in Munich.
At first sight the Presepio of Naples may appear a magnificent
toy, but to see it only in this light is to miss the point. It is
missionary in spirit and intention, and also in presentation. The
Christmas Crib can be that of Bethlehem, but it can also
represent the extension of the Incarnation in the whole world
among men of all lands and avocations. Throughout the centuries
we have seen how many people who could not travel wanted to feel
themselves present in Bethlehem, at any rate in their Crib: the
Neapolitan Figurari to a hitherto undreamed of degree brought
Bethlehem to Naples, or took the whole of Naples to Bethlehem.
This was certainly due to Padre Rocco.
It was friendship with this Dominican which first brought the
court painter Celebrano to making puppets. His figures give very
much the impression of having been taken from life: there is a
certain type of bald shepherd, or of rugged face which is
unmistakably his, as well as elegant courtiers. His friend Gori
liked the comfortable, well-fed steward with a stout pleasant
wife and another favourite artist, Mosca, in his spare time from
being a clerk in the Ministry of War made excellent studies of
countryfolk as well as models of Neapolitan farms and other
buildings. With Mosca there worked Tozzi, a painter in the Capo
di Monte Factory and a specialist in hands, no matter whether
molded by ease, work, or suffering; hands as individual as the
temperaments of their owners.
The animals of the Presepio also had their specialist Gori, who
besides portraying his patrons would also model some favourite
horse or dog, then there were Vassallo, and Saverio whose sheep
and horses had such success that he went to work in Spain. Gallo
too made some excellent models from the animals he saw in the
royal zoo, including the first elephant to be seen in Naples
which arrived with a Turkish embassy. The culminating point of
Presepio art was reached with Giuseppe Sammartino, and that an
artist of his power and reputation should have been ready to
devote so much time to the making of Crib figures shows how
important they were. Sammartino's interest was in the modelled
and painted figure far more than in puppets; he had a tender spot
for beggars, and his are as varied as those of the Neapolitan
streets. He had a number of followers and pupils and the
tradition was so rich, so firmly established, that it has never
There is another point that we must notice in the Neapolitan
Presepio and that is its connection with contemporary Nativity
music. In the eighteenth century Naples was rich in great
musicians and the Scarlattis, Pergolesi, Jomelli, Leo, Paisiello
all wrote Christmas cantatas, motets, and pastorals intended to
be sung in front of the Crib, performed moreover by singers and
players from the four famous Conservatori. One composition by
Carisena was written in honour of the Presepio in the church of
the Jesuits where the Bambino was especially revered. When a
Moorish slave of Elisabetta della Rovere refused all efforts to
convert him, it was the Santo Bambino who deigned to speak and
ever after the converted slave had his place with the shepherds
in that particular Crib.
SICILY AND ROME
IN SOME ways the Sicilian Crib resembled that of Naples; it too
had grown out of Sacre Rappresentazioni, every church and almost
every family had its Presepio and one street in Palermo was
called the Via dei Bambini, so many were the artists. Some of the
figures were puppets, but the greater number were of carved and
painted wood, and the clothes were linen dipped in gesso (a
special type of plaster) which could be modelled to the exact
fold the artist wished, and then painted. These figures were
generally smaller than those of Naples and some of them are
Caltagirone and Trapani were centers of Presepio art with
distinguished artists such as Vaccaro, Bongioranni, and Trilocco,
and especially Matera who was a poet of the Nativity and also of
the countryfolk of Sicily.
The widespread popularity of wood and gesso as materials for
figures did not exclude the use of silver gilt, ivory, coral,
alabaster, shells, and wax, the latter particularly favoured by
Zumbo who also worked in Naples. Beside the Presepio for the
rich, there were many others in wood or clay, carved and modelled
by the country people for themselves. The Crib can also be seen
painted on the gaudy Sicilian carts.
The temperament behind the Sicilian Crib is as different from the
Neapolitan as are the songs of the Sulfatari from those of the
Naples fishermen. The Sicilians never greatly fancied the scene
in the inn, but they insisted on the Massacre of the Innocents,
the Flight into Egypt, and the carpenter shop in Nazareth. In
Sicily too shepherds came from the hills "to console the Mother
of God"; two always went together alternating the verses of
interminable ancient songs with the accompaniment of fiddle,
flute, or bagpipe, and it is particularly easy to imagine
Sicilian shepherds setting out for the Grotto two thousand years
In Rome Santa Maria Maggiore has always continued as the chief
sanctuary of the Nativity, and after it the Ara Coeli acquired
renown when it became the home of the Santo Bambino and its
Presepio was enriched with a number of figures belonging to an
older one in San Francesco a Ripa. Sant' Andrea della Valle,
Sant' Antonio, Sts. Cosmas and Damian, Santa Maria in Trastevere
were only a few of the churches with famous Presepi, nor were the
private enthusiasts much behind those of Naples. It is strange
that, given the demand, no names of Roman Crib artists have come
down to us. An unfailing characteristic of all Roman Cribs is the
presence of a "glory" of angels descending from heaven to earth.
One very ambitious Presepio was described by a Dominican Father
Labat who travelled in Italy in the eighteenth century: the Crib
belonged to a priest who was known as "the Prelate of the
Presepio," and different scenes of the Nativity cycle were
represented by tableaux in a number of rooms. Naturally the house
was always crowded and the Prelate arranged concerts of suitable
music in honour of special guests: what could have been better
than Corelli's Nativity Concerto or the lovely motets of Nannini;
would it not be a good idea to revive them? Wherever there was a
Crib there were carols and poems, and in the Ara Coeli sermons,
too, recited by children while the familiar sounds of the
shepherds' bagpipes echoed in the streets. There were other huge
Presepi in Palazzo Caffarelli and that arranged by Signor Forti
on the top of the Torre dell'Anguillara where the landscape was
exactly copied from the view. This Crib was one of the sights of
Inevitably the southern Presepi absorb our attention, but we must
at least remember that in each region of Italy the Crib
flourished in churches, in convents, in palaces and cottages, and
each reflected local customs and costumes, and was made by local
artists using local material.
Among these workers some of the most famous were the "figurinai"
of Lucca who have carried, and still carry, their stucco and
plaster statuettes all over the world. The craft originated in
the Lucchese convents, but it quickly became one of the chief
sources of income to the whole district, and among the figures
those of the Presepio are never lacking.
The Lombards, on the other hand, gave up the modelled clay figure
in favour of figures drawn and painted on paper and stuck on
wood, a style perfected by Londonio in the eighteenth century. He
was already famous as a painter of country scenes when, after a
visit to Rome, he turned his attention to Cribs with which he had
great success. His work was carried on by his followers Appiani
It were well worthwhile to pursue the Presepio into every corner
of Italy, but we must now turn toward Spain. On the way, Ajaccio
in Corsica catches our eye for there, in the room of Madame Mere,
is what remains of the Crib played with by the little Bonapartes
in 1779 when the small Napoleon removed the Kings' crowns and set
them on his brothers' heads while adorning his own person with
PROVENCE, SPAIN, AND PORTUGAL
IN THE Musee Borely of Marseilles there are three Cribs, Louis
XIV, Louis XV, and Louis XVI respectively, which reflect the
changing fashions of those reigns. These are Cribs in which
delicate china figures play at being shepherds, where the stable
has become a court, and the last one recalls the make-believe of
the Trianon. The Creche in France was not as general as in Italy
or Germany but it always existed, in churches and in homes, and
before it were sung traditional Pastorals.
The Marseillais of the late eighteenth century had a great fancy
for mechanical Cribs often combined with a music box, and an
ingenious person named Laurent made Cribs to suit contemporary
politics. For instance, after the Concordat between Pius VII and
Napoleon the Pope could be seen arriving in Bethlehem with the
Cardinals and blessing the Holy Family; and in another the Infant
Jesus clapped His Hands for the Pope and would turn His head and
hold out His arms while the shepherds and Magi passed before Him.
Such tricks, however, soon palled, and attention turned to the
clay figures which were being made by a craftsman named Glorian
who was followed by Agnel, and then by Antoine and his whole
family. They were all modellers who cared nothing for courts and
elegance, and a great deal for the people of Provence. The
figures were generally small, sometimes tiny and they came to be
called Santons while the manger was known as Lou Belen. Before
long Marseilles had an annual fair of Santons, and the number of
artists increased, and the types and technique varied according
to whether the Santon had come from the hands of Pastourel,
Boyer, Negre, Fabre, or Guindon. Every Santonnier was concerned
in taking all working Provence to Bethlehem, man, woman and
child, old and young, some walking, some on donkeys, Guilheon,
Perirour, or Jouan, someone always playing the bagpipes or
fiddle. The only set group in a Provencal "Belen" is the Holy
Family. The Santon has proved his toughness; he has never become
sentimental or romantic or vulgar; he was and is a worker of
Provence admitting only two exceptions to his company, "lou Saint
Pape" (the holy Pope) and Napoleon.
One cannot speak of Santons and forget the Midnight Mass at Les
Baux which still retains echoes of older customs. At the
Offertory, to the singing of Provencal Noels an "angel" from
behind the altar announces the birth of Christ to the shepherds,
and a lamb is brought in on a little cart decked with flowers and
lights and drawn by a ram. And Les Baux prides itself on having
given hospitality to Balthasar, one of the Magi.
In Spain a magnificent Nativity tradition had been handed down
since the Middle Ages in which all the arts took part. Spaniards
had always sung of the Nochebuena in carols and songs, had
represented it in plays and had built splendid Nativity altars.
There were Cribs of the finest goldsmith's art, of ivory, of
carved and painted wood, or of clay, Cribs of all sizes and all
kinds. Hernandez, Beccerra, Montanes, Gno all made Nativity
groups; Pedro Roldan was a maker of Cribs of which some may still
be extant; and it is said that Lope de Vega owned a Crib with
figures of wax. By the seventeenth century the craft of
Pesebrista (Crib maker) was actively practised, and employed as
many different people as in Naples.
A Crib was made by Jose Gines for Carlos IV with several scenes
in which some of the figures were life size. The chief work of
Amadeu, also a great Pesebrista, was the "Nacimento" for San
Francisco de Paula in Barcelona, and a fusion of the Neapolitan
and Spanish traditions can be found in the workshop of the
Salzillo family in Murcia. Nicola Salzillo came to Spain from
Capua and with his son Francisco became famous for great groups
of the Passion as well as for Cribs. In Spain the tradition of
the courtly Crib continued alongside another in which each
province represented its own people and customs, and the Spanish
Crib had the very great range of the Spanish oversea empire. The
missionaries carried it into the heart of the New World and of
The Crib in Portugal descended from the same great Nativity
tradition as in Spain, but at its most elaborate it was
restricted to the scenes of the Nativity and the adoration of the
Magi. Perhaps owing to less foreign influence Crib making had
been deeply rooted in the rustic craft of figures modelled in
clay and painted. Such figures appeared alongside of "autos
populares" which were performed either by human actors or
puppets. Against this background the art of polychrome statuary
developed during the sixteenth century, and rather later there
were two active centres of Crib making in Lisbon and Mafra.
The numerous Crib artists were often sculptors and undertook
commissions for figures of any size; Faustino Rodriguez made most
attractive small figures as did also Francisco Elias and Jose
Leitas. Jose de Almeida, Policarpo de Silva, and others were all
working in and round Lisbon, but the two outstanding names are
those of Antonio Ferreira and Machado da Castro. Ferreira and his
assistants made a Crib with some five hundred figures for the
Basilica of the Coracao de Jesus, and a lovely Crib is Machado da
Castro's in Lisbon. It has no genre scenes, no trimmings, no
amusing crowd: attention is focussed on the manger in the
foreground while beyond the Kings are seen journeying through a
very attractive landscape. Here Portuguese Crib art is at its
XII. NINETEENTH CENTURY--AND NOW
THE nineteenth century had to be content to echo the "eclat" of
its predecessor, at least so far as the Southern countries were
concerned. Enthusiastic crowds still went to see the great Roman
and Neapolitan Cribs and good work was also being done by the
Figurari Ceccon, Surdi with an enormous Presepio, Cifariello,
Monteverdi, and Ferrari.
In Germany and Austria there had been a moment of blight on the
Cribs and many of the best ones were sold piecemeal after the
dissolution of the religious orders. However, the Crib had too
strong a hold on the German heart and was not to be dislodged.
Crib art recovered itself and a new school came to the fore
headed by Joseph von Fuhrich. His inspiration came from the early
Renaissance, his scenes were simple and spacious set against a
"romantic" background. Every year he produced a new Crib for his
own family, and his work influenced a whole generation.
Johann Berger, Johann Ploderl, Franz Frohlich, Max Gehri, Joseph
Bachlechner, Andrea Barsam, Wandeln Reiner, and the Lang family
carried on the best traditions of Austrian and German Crib
making, and in the middle of the century the Bozen school
culminated in the work of Moser. His great Crib, the remains of
which are in Munich, was a lifework: it is wood carving and
originally it had a quantity of figures, some older ones he had
collected, others of his own. Architecture was Moser's chief
hobby; never have models been more delicately exact, and as his
enthusiasm for different styles varied through the years, his
Crib contains some buildings that are Oriental, others Gothic-one
was copied from the Hotel de Ville in Brussels--and others again
pure Palladian. Moser's unique Crib was saved at least in part by
a Crib collector, Doctor Max Schmederer, who found what remained
of it in Rovereto. He presented his whole collection containing
some excellent examples to the National Museum in Munich, where
they can be easily studied but...a museum is no home for a
Nor did the German production stop with Moser. The Munich
sculptor, Sebastian Osterrieder, gave up his whole career to it
and spent several years in Palestine studying the landscape and
background: Bradl, Zehentbauer, Unterpieringer, Gammerler,
Lechner-Hall are among the more modern Crib makers, using a great
variety of material and many designs.
Besides these Cribs made by artists in all the German-speaking
lands, and notably too among the Czechs there has always been the
traditional Crib of the countryside. The more sophisticated Czech
Crib usually came from Iglau, Zwittau, or Schlucknau where there
were outstanding craftsmen, and they were given to inserting
models of famous buildings into their backgrounds, while for
their own pleasure the Czechs, like the Austrians and the Poles,
were warm patrons of the Krippenspiel which journeyed from place
to place, always sure of its audience, a long-lived, poor
relation of the Mystery stage and the Puppet theatre. It
generally had three stages one above the other; on the lowest was
the Crib which carried the stationary group of the Crib, on the
second the guilds and trades were shown in action, and on the
topmost tier was the Krippenstadt on which a regular play was
acted with all kinds of rowdy scenes and fun.
In Poland the Szopka, which was a variety of Krippenspiel, was
enormously popular, and though the Crib had its place in
churches, it was the Szopka which carried it through the
countryside gathering up local Nativity customs and carols.
* * *
Our little sightseeing trip through Crib history has brought us
to our present century which is as surprising as any other. Even
fifty years ago there was little to suggest that the English, who
seemed to have definitely turned their backs on the Crib, should
reappear on the scene full of enthusiasm. I do not know whether,
during penal times English Catholics kept to the practice of the
Crib; naturally since the emancipation our churches have had
their Cribs and have been emulated increasingly by the Anglo
Catholics. But this is not all: Cribs are now in great demand in
hospitals, institutions, in a variety of public buildings, and
many of the big shops devote a window to the Crib. A life size
Crib is set up in Trafalgar Square, the heart of London, and the
Christmas Poster Campaign, run by a group of adventurous
Catholics is fast spreading to all the English-speaking lands.
All over the United States we see the same thing happening. A
quarter century ago a crib was a rarity in the American home--
except perhaps for families of German or Italian extraction.
Today it has taken its place, with the Christmas tree, in a large
number of Catholic homes, and in non-Catholic ones as well. Many
people everywhere realize that the Crib is one of the most
eloquent protests against the tide of materialism which is trying
to cut the cable between the celebration of Christmas and the
Nativity of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In the United States the
movement to "Put Christ Back Into Christmas" must be given some
credit for this realization. The cry is now for Cribs, and once
again Crib artists are being offered a big chance.
It is happening, too, all over Europe, and in Spain, Italy, and
Germany there exist Societies of the Friends of the Crib which
are particularly useful in keeping Crib lovers in touch and whose
publications offer practical help to the amateur who wants to do
something more exciting than to buy his Crib ready made.
Some years ago an International Congress of Crib Lovers was
organized in Rome by the foremost Italian connoisseur of Cribs,
Signor Angelo Stefanucci, and at the same time there was a most
interesting exhibition of Cribs from all over the world. Very
surprising some of them were, and one point that can hardly have
escaped any visitor is the necessity of helping the production of
Cribs in our missions.
The Crib is never stereotyped, its variety is endless: Bethlehem
is the only place where all peoples meet as brothers: Christmas
without Christ is the emptiest, saddest vanity of the world: the
Christmas Crib alone is Christmas.
CHRISTMAS CRIB SOCIETIES
United States of America. American Christmas Crib Society, 305
South Wayne Street, Fremont, Ohio.
Argentina. Hermandad del Santo Pesebre, Buenos Aires.
Brazil. Associacao de Presipistas, 78 Jardin Paulistano, San
Chile. Grupo de Pesebristas de la Asociacion Folklorica Chilena,
Austria. Verband der Krippenfreunde Oesterreichs, Pfarrplatz 6,
Germany. Vereins Bayrischer Krippenfreunde, Balanstrasse 9,
Amberg, Munich. Landesgemeinschaft der Krippenfreunde im
Rheinland und West-Falen, Ubierstrasse 21, Bad Godesberg, Koln.
Krippenfreunde "Gloria," Sedanstrasse 82, Remscheid. Kreis der
Krippenfreunde fur Berlin und Ostdeutschland Am Waldhaus 28-30,
Italy. Associazione Italiana Amici del Presepio, Via Madonna dei
Monti 84, Rome.
Spain. Asociacion de Pesebristas de Barcelona, Canuda 35.
Asociacion de Belenistas de Madrid, Trafalgar 14. Asociacion de
Belenistas de Pamplona, Calle Beunza 32.
The Association in Barcelona is particularly active and in 1952
instituted the Universalis Foederation Praesepistica which keeps
in touch with other Crib Societies. With the object of increasing
the diffusion of the Crib an international congress was held in
Rome in 1954, and another is announced in Barcelona for 1957.