Spanish version

Nativity Scenes in Madrid

When was Jesus born?

figure crib at Community Madrid 2009

Although there is no official evidence, it is believed that Jesus was born in spring. In the Gospels (Luke 2:8) it is said that the shepherds were looking after their cattle in the open air, that is why supposedly it was in spring.

The Catholic Church started celebrating Jesus' birth in the 4th century, when the celebration of Easter had already been established.

Both events could not be so close in time, that is why Christmas was, and is, celebrated in winter. Like Eastern, also this celebration has pre-christian precedents. It is at the same time as the winter solstice and is also related to the Egyptian celebration of the birth of Osiris. During the times of the Roman Empire during the solstice they celebrated the death of the sun and its resurrection the next day.

Another possible date could have been January 6th, celebration of the Epiphany and, in fact, this is the main celebration for the Orthodox Church. The Epiphany commemorated the revelation of God in Jesus.

Childhood of Jesus

crib at Carboenras church 09

Only one of the evangelists, Luke, tells us a little bit about the childhood of Jesus. Most of the stories related to this time have their origin in the New Testament apocrypha, as well as the stories about Virgen Mary and Saint Joseph.

It was specially during the Middle Ages, that religious stories would appear, sometimes as liturgical dramas, and they would influence the following ages. One of the first known dramas is the "Auto de los Reyes Magos" from the XIIth century.

First Nativity Scenes

Nativity Scene at Community Madrid 09The first way to represent Nativity was in paintings, usually with the "Madonna and Child".
Here we have to take into account that, usually, the Church does not celebrate the birth, but the death of a person. Death meaning the birth to a life with God, to eternal life.
There had been some representations before, but it was really Saint Francis of Assisi, XIIIth century, who started with the costum of setting up a Nativity Scene. During a Midnight Mass he wanted to make a reference to the birth of Jesus and he set up a manger next to a mule and an ox. Afterwards, the nuns belonging to his order, Poor Clares,
continued setting up Nativity Scenes in their cloisters.

That is how cribs became popular during Christmas, first in Italy and the in the other countries where there were convents of this order. The first Nativity Scenes in Spain can be found in the XIVth century in Castille and Navarre.
First these cribs could be only found in cloisters. As time went by, specially noblemen were interested in putting up Nativity Scenes in their homes and, a little bit later, this custom also became very popular among the poor population.

In the XVIIth century the custom decayed until King Carlos III came to Spain from Naples. He was very interested in Nativiy Scenes and had many in his private collection.

Neapolitan Nativity Scenes

The Neapolitan cribs are famous all over the world and have influenced all others in one wayNeapolitan crib 2009 or another. These scenes reflect the bustling activity of Naples, its winding streets and its chaos. These cribs provide us with information about the typical characters that lived in the city in the XVII and XVIII century. Nowadays it would probably be the same, only the dresses would be different. These scenes have an aristocratic and courtesan character. They were made by the most famous sculptures. The figures have their heads, hans and feet made of clay, the rest of the body is made with a frame and then dressed in typical dresses of the time. Some of these figures are about 15 inches high. These scenes usually have an exotic aspect as figures dressed like Turkish soldiers or noblemen appear among the religious figures. It is also in these Nativity Scenes that we find a character that has been recovered in modern scenes, the Sultaness. She takes part in the Three Wise Men procession and it is believed that she was the mistress of one of them (Balthazar).

The figures are very complicated y quite frequently the person who ordered the Nativity Scene asked the artist to portrait him as a Wise Man. The rest of the family could be seen in less important characters. This is why only Virgen Mary, Saint Joseph and the Jesus Child are represented in an idealized way. The rest of figures represent popular characters.
Frequently these cribs are located under a Roman temple which is almost destroyed. This represents the Roman Empire which will almost collapse due to the influence of Jesus. The idea is to adapt the Nativity Scene to the age in which it is made. These Scenes are considered as costumbrist Nativity Scenes, i.e. they reflect the aspect of a period and/or region.
One of the most famous makers of Nativity Scenes was Guideppe Sanmartino, who made them in marble.

Nativity Scenes from Murcia

The cribs from this area are very popular in Spain. One of the main artists is Salcillo. His crib at San Miguel church 2009father was from Naples, so he is influenced by the Nativity Scenes of that city, although he adapted them to the Spanish style. The buildings, clothes and typical characters are quite different. The scenery had to be easily understood by the viewer. These cribs have
also a more religious aspect. They are considered as narrative Nativity Scenes as they start with the Annunciation, continue with the Nativity Scene itself and finish with the Wise Men Procession and the Flight into Egypt. This allows a great mixture of characters and activities.

The most famous crib by Salcillo is the one he made for Riquelme. It has about 600 carved figures. Some of them made by the artist's disciples.

Nativity Scenes from Castille

Epiphany Nativity Scene at San Gines Church 09

The most famous one were made by Fray Eugenio Gutierrez de Torices. He
made the figures with wax and they can usually be seen in showcases. Their clothes are made with paler colours than those of the Neapolitan Scenes.

The Castillian cribs are Epiphany cribs, they show the Wise Men Procession and sometimes a knight carrying the Star of Bethlehem. This knight could be an angel riding on a horse announcing the procession.

Other Nativity Scenes

Nativity Scene Town Hall 09After Salcillo started making his cribs, this tradition was soon adopted all over the country.
The Andalusian cribs became very popular in the XVIII century. They are more elegant and elaborated.
The cribs from Olot in Gerona include Herod´s castle in an attempt to give a real historical background to the story.
As time went by, a new style of Nativity scene appeared, including the type
of clothes really worn during Jesus' time. The are called Hebrew Nativity Scenes.
Currently the most famous crib-maker is Jose Luis Mayo. Many of his works can be seen in official institutions or churches in Madrid. He makes regional Nativity Scenes, i.e. he includes typical characters of the region like, for example, a man selling wafer - barquillero - a typical character in Madrid.
The figures are usually made using a cast, so they can be copied whenever they want, but there are also unique figures.

During Christmas time many Nativity Scenes can be seen in different official buildings and churches in Madrid. The best thing is to go at about 10:00 o´clock to the most popular ones (Town Hall, Community. Royal Palace) and afterwards visit those in the churches.
We hope you enjoy the visit.

@Copyright 2008, 2009 Mª Dolores Diehl Busch. All rights reserved.
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