The birth of Jesus has been represented in images since the 4th century when it appeared in reliefs on sarcophagi in Rome. St Francis of Assisi was perhaps the first to create a (living) nativity in the early 13th century. Since that time the nativity scene has spread from Italy across Europe and become an important part of Christmas festivities in many cultures in both public and domestic settings. The nativity has also been a major subject in paintings and other artistic forms since medieval times. We are celebrating this Christmas season with a look at some examples from our collections.
A good starting point is Art of the crèche: nativities from around the world (C200.a.1459), a well-illustrated book about a private collection, which provides a good overview of the many types of nativity including Italian presepi, Polish szopka, French santons.
In the Provence region the clay figurines, or santons, personify an aspect of village life as it was in the 18th century when they were first created. As well as the usual characters, a crèche from Provence will thus often include a miller, a baker, a parish priest, a mayor, as well as more picturesque figures such as the boumian (Bohemian), the tambourinaire (drummer), the rémouleur (who sharpens the knives with a grindstone) and so on. The most famous of these characters is probably le ravi (the raptured one), a name given to the village idiot who raises his arms in the air, delighted at the sight of the infant Jesus.
In 18th century Naples the birth of Jesus was also set in a scene of an entire village. Families competed to produce the most elegant scenes which might include ladies and gentlemen of the nobility, representatives of the bourgeoisie, people playing cards or housewives doing shopping. You can see examples of such figures in Still life: 18th-century Neapolitan nativity scenes and painting (S950.a.201.2118).
The nativity tradition spread too to South America and La estrella del camino: apuntes para el estudio del belén barroco quiteño (S950.c.201.277) deals with specific Baroque nativities in Quito, including this one:
A similar level of intricacy is demonstrated in the picture alongside, taken from
Chrámové betlémy v Čechách a na Moravě (S403:95.c.9.8) in which the Czech nativity tradition is discussed.
There are notable museum collections of nativity scenes in the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum in Munich and in Salzburg and the books Krippen (1999.9.1850) and Die Krippensammlung des Salzburger Museums (P909:31.c.21.20) give more details.
Moving from 3D to 2D representations, you can find out more about early depictions in Gott der Herr, er ist uns erschienen : das Weihnachtsbild der frühen Kirche und seine Ausgestaltung in Ost und West (43:01.c.36.1007). A fine early 16th century representation of the birth of Jesus, which raised the bar for later artists, is Albrecht Dürer’s woodcut Die Geburt Christi, here taken from Albrecht Dürer: das druckgraphische Werk (S404:23.a.200.10-12)
Many Italian painters used the theme of the nativity in their works. See Michelangelo e la Natività (2004.9.3860) for some good examples. One particularly famous representation is Antonio da Correggio’s La Notte, important enough to have two books devoted to it (Correggios “Notte”: ein Meisterwerk der italienischen Renaissance – S950.c.200.1260 and La famosissima Notte : Correggios Gemälde “Die Heilige Nacht” und seine Wirkungsgeschichte – 2002.9.732)
A recent exhibition catalogue, “Aquende et allende” : obras singulares de la Navidad en la Granada moderna (S950.a.201.2599), focuses particularly on Spanish artwork. We also have a doctoral thesis, Bilden, texten och kyrkorummet : en studie av scener kring Jesu födelse och Kristoffermotivet i Sydsknadinaviens medeltida kalkmäleri (C211.c.3668) that deals with the depiction of the nativity in medieval Swedish church murals.
If the nativities featured here have inspired you and you are feeling creative you could knit your own nativity scene using one of these books.
And if you just can’t get enough of nativities you might be interested in seeing some more unusual ones here.
Other books in our collections to consider for further reading include:
- Rudolf Berliner’s standard reference work Die Weihnachtskrippe (S403:95.b.9.3)
- Shivering Babe, victorious Lord : the Nativity in poetry and art (9001.b.6533)
- Middeleeuwse Kerstvoorstellingen (9009.c.2961)
- From 1938 The Christmas crib (97:3.b.90.1)
- La Natività nell’arte (S100.b.200.13), featuring fine colour illustrations of representations in western art
- The Nativity (9003.c.1185)
- Indice bibliografico de publicaciones belenistas y temas afines (857.c.464.6), demonstrating that in the 1960s the crib was deemed an important enough subject that a bibliography of relevant books was prepared
Happy Christmas from all of us in Collections and Academic Liaison!