The historical sources
about the crib can be found in the Gosples of St. Luke and of St. Matthew; they narrate
about the birth of Jesus, the announcement to the shepherds, the three Wise Men and their
gifts. The Apocrypha (the Protogospel of St. James and the Arabian Gospel for infancy)
enriched the evangelic narration as well; furthermore, Origene, who lived in the first
half of the third century, in his thirteenth homily on St. Luke added the presence of an
ox and a donkey in the stable. These are the elements of the first paleochristian
representations of the Nativity and of the Epiphany.
It is impossible to establish which is the oldest among these so many representations,
almost always bas-relieves. It might be the bas-relief on the sarcophagus of Adelphia and
Valerio in Syracuse, or that of Isacio, an Armenian exarch of Ravenna, or that in St.
Agnes cemetery in Rome, or the Epiphany with two Magi in the catacombs of Pietro and
Marcellino, or that with four Magi in the catacombs of Domitilla.
Talking about the Magi, it is interesting to know that their rather variable quantity was
fixed in the number of three by St. Leone the Great (fifth century), and that they were
considered as belonging to the three human races: the Semitic one, represented by the
young King; the Giapetic one, represented by the elderly King; the Hamitic one,
represented by the black King. This symbolism does not only mean the universal involvement
in Redemption, but the three Kings of different ages might represent the three ages of
man, and the three gifts they bring might witness the royalty (the gold), the divinity
(the incense) and the humanity (the myrrha) of the Holy Child. It is also interesting to
add that from the third and the fourth century up to the thirteenth century many
bas-relieves of the Nativity found in Italy represent the Virgin laying near the Infant
Jesus resting in his manger, and these representations show the influence exercised for
many centuries, especially in the Mediterranean Italy, by the Eastern Church.
There were many controversies between the Church of Antiochia and that of Alexandria, that
is to say between Nestorio and Cirillus; the first keeping the two qualities of Christ,
the divine and the human one, distinct and separate affirmed that the Virgin Mary was the
mother of Christ-man and not of Christ-god; on the contrary Cirillus affirmed the divinity
of the Virgin Mary. In a first moment Nestorio's thesis prevailed, although it was
formally condemned in the Council of Ephesus in 431, and it influenced for many centuries
the countries of the middle and far East. Only after the thirteenth century, with the
establishment of the Marian cult, owing to the theological elaborations of St. Thomas and
St. Bonaventura, the Virgin's delivery was no more represented as that of a common woman.
The Virgin Mary and St. Joseph were represented as kneeling and adoring; moreover, from
the representations disappeared the midwives, the nurse, Eve and the Sibyl who had been
depicted till that moment as in the Adelphia and Valerio's sarcophagus of the third and
the fourth century in Syracuse, in the ivory crib on Massimiano pulpit in Ravenna (546 ),
in the crib engraved by Niccolò; Pisano on the pulpit of the Siena Cathedral in 1268.
Since the first centuries of the Christian era, the birth of Jesus, the most important
event in the redemption of mankind, was represented on frescos, bas-relieves,
wall-carvings and panels put in places of worship.
These numerous testimonies are very important for the knowledge of the development on the
crib; however, they are not cribs in the full sense of the word. At first, the term crib
was solely attributed to plastic representations, whether of the single scene of the
Nativity, or of those added to it later on: "The shepherds Adoration", "The
Annunciation to the shepherds", etc. All these scenes were represented through the
mysteries performed in the churches and in the confraternities since the early Middle
Ages. Just from the sacred drama probably derived the crib with its engraved characters.
Up to the half of the thirteenth century, we do not have any news about plastic works
representing the Nativity, even if a sort of rudimentary crib should be found in a wood
"tettoie" (sort of shed) supported by trunks of trees which was built by order
of Pope Liberio (352-355) in the Basilica called, not for this reason, "St. Maria ad
praesepe" in Rome, today known as St. Maria Maggiore. It, that had almost the shape
of a stable, was placed before an altar where Masses were celebrated on Christmas nights.
"Tettoie" were built also in the Church of St. Maria in Trastevere in Rome, in
the Church of St. Maria della Rotonda in Naples and, certainly, in several churches of
different towns. It is known that a golden statue representing the Virgin and the Child
was placed under the "tettoie" of St. Maria Maggiore by order Pope Gregorio II
(731-734). Frescos and statues representing the Divine Event were placed under
"tettoie" of other churches as well.
That the crib was St. Francis' invention in Greccio on the Christmas night in 1223, is
just a poetic conjecture. As a matter of fact the crib has not a precise date of birth,
but it was born through so many usages, pictures, pageants and old mysteries represented
The oldest crib with plastic characters dates back to 1283 and was commited by Pope Onorio
IV. It is a powerful work, but only five statues, surely works of Arnolfo di Cambio, still
The Greccio miracle surely had a wide echo and it stimulated the construction of cribs;
the Franciscan Friars were undoubtedly the first to divulge them. In Naples, patronized by
the Angevins, they built some convents, and in 1340 the Clarisse received a crib, up to
now chronologically the second, as a gift by the Queen Sancia for their just finished
church. It is a crib with separated, wood characters which have benn painted in miniature
with coeval, geometrical motif, but only one statue of this crib remains, representing the
lying Virgin. It is at present kept in St. Martino Museum in Naples. In another crib, only
a few decades more recent, remain five wood, separated and full-sized characters which
date back to 1370 and have been carved by anonymous artists from Bologna. Later a certain
Simone de' Crocifissi decorated them splendidly. At present they are kept in Bologna.
In the first half of the sixteenth century, together with signs fore-warning the reformist
movements of the Christianity, in the whole Italy there was a great production of cribs of
artistic value, almost all designed for churches. In Piemonte and in Lombardia holy
representations, with full-sized statues engraved in stone and with crib scenes, were
built on the Sacred Mountains of Varallo and of Varese. In the Cathedral of Modena, there
are still the beautiful terra-cotta crib by Antonio Begarelli (1527) and the crib by Guido
Mazzoni called "Il presepe della pappa". In Marche: in Piobbico (Urbino) and
even in Urbino there are two wonderful cribs made by the sculptor Federico Brandani. In
the same period, some ink- stand shaped cribs were made in tinted baked clay in Faenza. In
Leonessa (Rieti), potters from the Abruzzi moulded a monumental crib with twenty-six
statues, animals and horses. In Apulia, Stefano da Putignano built cribs for churches of
various localities, with statues engraved in stone and settled on structures of natural
rock that are the only crib scenes, all rather similar, preserved till now.
In Naples, many statues for cribs were manufactured by request of churches and buyers
(many of them were Spaniards); however, except for the above-mentioned crib given to the
Clarisse by the Queen Sancia in 1340 and with the only lying Virgin remaining, nothing has
been preserved. The arrival in Naples of Pietro and Giovanni Alemanno, coming from the
north of Italy, was particularly important for the manufacture of wooden statues for
cribs; Pietro, who was a remarkable artist, his son Giovanni and their several
collaborators manufactured complete cribs including numerous characters. The oldest one
was carved for the Church of St. Giovanni a Carbonara in 1478. Its statues were forty-one,
nearly full-sized and painted by a certain Francesco Fiore. They were disposed into a wide
and complicated scenografy which we can only guess, since nothing of it has remained just
like all the crib scenes of the same and of the following centuries; moreover, only twelve
statues remain together with the imagine of the blowing angel, "logotype" of the
Naples Section of "The Crib Friends".
Belonging to the same age there is also the Belverte Crib which is now partly displayed in
the Church of St. Domenico Maggiore in Naples.
In the Renaissance, worth mentioning is the crib built by the sculptor Antonio Rossellino
in 1475 and currently kept in the Church of St. Anna dei Lombardi. It is a real jewel: a
white, marble high-relief where nearly plastic figures have as their background a
scenography that is in marble as well. The Madonna so sweet kneeling and adoring, St.
Joseph and the animals as well are represented in a natural and non-conventional attitude.
Between the end of the fifteenth century and the first decades of the following century,
the sculptor of the Renaissance Giovanni Marigliano (1480-1558), better known as Giovanni
da Nola, held the supremacy in Naples thanks to his sculpture-school. He made marble
statues and monuments for viceroys, princes and noble people, for various churches and
important public buildings in the town, and they are works which can be still admired. He
carved in wood splendid cribs even with elements of landscape (none of them is left), and
with full-sized, timber, polychrome statues. In the Church of St. Maria del Parto in
Margellina, it is still possible to admire five statues remaining from the crib commited
to him by Jacopo Sannazzaro on the occasion of the publication of his Latin poem "De
According to the tradition the founder of the Theatine Minor Clerks, St. Gaetano from
Thiene who reached Naples in 1534, had a cult for crib, and he brought into it some
characters dressed according to the fashion of that age, but there is nothing in writing
At the end of the sixteenth century in the middle of the Counter-Reformation, the
Theatines, the Franciscan Friars, the Jesuits and, not long after, the Scolopi promoted
the diffusion of crib in order to feed and to increase the Christian faith and the popular
devotion. Also the nunneries made competitions to possess the finest crib, and their crib
statues were in wood, with glass eyes and just shorter than usual.
It was developed in this way the baroque crib, called also mobile because it was
dismantled and reconstructed every year. The plastic, monumental statues were replaced by
timber manikins engraved by skilful artists and with knuckle-joints allowing them to
assume different attitudes. These manikins, smaller than usual, were provided with wigs,
glass eyes, clothes and polychrome bare parts.
As a matter of fact these wooden, jointed manikins originated from Germany; moreover, the
Jesuits gave rise to this new kind of crib building a Nativity in Prague in 1560 and a
whole crib in the Church of St. Michele in Munich in 1605. It is advisable to add that the
Jesuits' crib had a didactic and liturgic function, since they displayed several scenes
illustrating some parts of the Gospel.
At present, we have only a few news about the scenography of these cribs; however, we know
that it became very important, paying much attention to perspective and to lighting
through lamps, mirrors and reflecting plates, hidden by fals damasks and framing cribs as
a theatrical scene. Besides the traditional characters appeared, gradually, scenes and
laical elements that had nothing to do with the sacre Event: the market place, the
fountain, the farmstead, the tavern, etc. The characteristics of the prevailing baroque
were evident: performance, sensation of movement, disposition to naturalism and to
represent the surrounding reality drawing greater inspiration from the aesthetical canons
of that time than from the liturgical canons and from the sacre operas. Numerous were the
sculptors of important monuments and civil statues who made these wooden manikins as well,
such as Pietro Ceraso, Giuseppe Picano, Domenico Di Nardo and Giacomo Colombo, who made a
famous crib with manikins of life size. It seems that this crib was given by the Duchess
Orsini to the Church of St. Maria in Portico. It is the only entire crib with manikins
which still remains, although, unfortunately, its manikins have been adjusted in different
ways and in different ages. This crib is kept in the Museum of the Church of St. Lorenzo
The baroque, Neapolitan crib gave an impulse to the Ligurian crib thanks to the Neapolitan
artist Giacomo Colombo who moved to Genova. The influence of the Neapolitan crib was
strong also in Apulia and in Sicily where the crib became "mobile" with statues
on a small scale and made of terra-cotta, paper-pulp, clay-paper-pulp, or even of precious
materials (coral and gold in Sicily).
Towards the end of the seventeenth century, the Neapolitan artist Michele Perrone, urged
by an increasing demand of cribs, conceived manikins shorter than the jointer ones,
covered with tow and with a core made of a soft iron wire; only the head and the limbs of
these statues were carved in wood. This innovation was very important because, with the
extreme mobility and ductility of the characters, also the scene surrounding them became
more real, and arose the rococo crib.