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The History of Nativity Sets

A note from Ricky Anderson, owner of Holy Land Treasures USA

The following article is one that I did not write and I have been unable to find the original author, therefore I am using it without his permission. Whoever the author was, he did a great amount of research and has a wonderful presentation about the history of Nativity sets. I hope that you find it informative. View all of our Nativity sets from the Holy Land.

The Origin of Nativity Scenes

“... Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” The gospel of Luke states that  (chapter 2 verse 7) Jesus was born in a stable or at least in a place where animals were kept. In fact the word presepio (Nativity Scene) comes from the Latin verb praesepire (to enclose, to hedge, to fence) and today it means manger or crib. But even though many people call the Nativity scene or Nativity set a manger scene, the manger was the feeding trough for the animals, not the stable.

The term "Nativity scene" is thought to have been used for the first time with regard to St Mary Major’s Basilica on the Esquiline Hill in Rome, known since the 7th century as “Sancta Maria ad praesepe” because according to tradition it was here the that the relics of the Cradle of Jesus were brought.

An encyclopedia describes the Nativity scene as a three dimensional representation of the birth of Jesus Christ, composed of mobile figures arranged according to the artistic sense of the builder as well as realistic elements such as houses, rocks, plants etc, which is prepared for Christmas and removed after. As such the Nativity set  is closely related to the theatre.

With time the tradition of the Nativity set evolved in various phases. Sets were first found in churches, and this was the ecclesiastical period. The Nativity set figures at first painted and then carved, were placed at side altars and chapels specially reserved for the Nativity set. Later came the aristocratic period in which the tradition of a Nativity scene in the home became popular and Nativity Sets were ever richer and more pretentious, but also highly artistic.

Scholars agree that the oldest Nativity set in Italy is a Nativity Scene in marble attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio around 1289. Although some of the figurines were broken or lost, this Nativity set can still be seen today in the Basilica of St Mary Major in Rome. Up to 1870 many Popes came here to celebrate Christmas Mass.

In the 1300s

The earliest Nativity Scenes in Italy date to the 1300s although actually these were figurines in marble, wood or terracotta permanently exposed all the year round in a side chapel and until the 16th century the Presepio remained as such. To mention a few, a Nativity set carved in wood in 1330 for the Poor Clare Sisters at the Convent of Saint Clare in Naples; another famous Nativity set in wood at Rivolta d’Adda (Cremona) dated 1480 of the school of Alemanno; a terracotta manger scene found in the Franciscan church at Busseto (Parma) the work of Guido Mazzoni.

Ambrogio della Robbia is said to be the author of a Nativity Scene in polychrome terracotta found at the church of the Holy Spirit in Sienna.

When the Council of Trent, which closed in 1563, issued precise norms for devotion to the saints and relics it encouraged the diffusion of the Nativity scene as an expression of popular piety. The Jesuits, a new Religious Order constituted precisely during that Council, took over the tradition almost monopolizing it: in their hands the Nativity sets served for didactic purposes to win back reformed Christians and evangelise in the recently discovered lands of the New World.

The Nativity scene, Catholic and Mediterranean, counteracted the Christmas tree, Protestant and Nordic, started by Martin Luther; moreover the Jesuits imposed their taste for ornamental profusion and distanced it increasingly from its original Franciscan simplicity. The 17th century saw the appearance and development of scenic effects which revolutionized Nativity sets. Nativity Scenes became a mirror for the culture which produced them, reflecting the society of the day and the most vivacious aspects of daily life with traits of intense realism. Nativity sets and Nativity scenes were enriched with unusual and exotic elements and spectacular scenery, displaying inventive imagination typical of Baroque.

At this time Nativity sets began to step out of churches to enter patrician, bourgeois homes as an object of luxury interior decoration, mounted and remounted differently year after year.

The large statues were replaced with wooden figures sometimes partly of straw with head and limbs in terracotta, wax or wood adorned with sumptuous clothing, fostering private Nativity sets, which had none of the monumentality and immobility proper of Nativity Scenes in churches.

From Baroque to our day

The baroque Nativity set reached its highest artistic expression in the Neapolitan Presepio, which influenced, albeit with natural regional differences, the Nativity scenes in Sicily, Genoa and Rome.

In the 19th century, inexpensive Nativity figures in clay, plaster or papier-mache were produced to satisfy the demand of an ever vaster public. Artists were replaced by artisans who often used moulds and there was a repetition of old motives, without the addition of new original elements; moreover, in this century, the Nativity scene rediscovered that aspect of ingenuous and spontaneous popular expression forgotten in the rich baroque homes.