Is it right to define with the word "crib" both the events linked to Jesus's childhood?
However the word "crib" indicates the pictorial, sculptural or scenic representation of these events so different among them for the setting, meaning and time. Can the authors of these sacred representations use the word “Crib” to define the scene of the Adoration of the Magi or God’s Epiphany? In short, if we accept the thesis that the Crib includes all the events happened between the night of 24th December and 6th January, that is between the coming of Jesus’s Birth and the recognition of his Divine Nature, there is no reason to ask the question.
But we cannot evade the dilemma without thinking. To put it aside and not to pay our undivided attention to the problem, inevitably takes to continuous contradictions and incoherences which, if attributed to the Evangelical events, are unacceptable.
The absence of time in the crib settings and costumes, the contemporary presence of fruit of all seasons, the visual story of events, happened in different centuries, represent some features, legitimized in time, of secular knowledge and popular tradition; they are circumstances which do not invalidate the sacredness of the representations and do not justify acts against the essence of context.
Therefore, after this short but necessary explanation, we ask, taking again the old question referred to the limited field of the modern crib (from Cuciniello on ) where many settings are based on the representation of the Adoration of the Magi in front of the baby Jesus, if these works can be named “Cribs”. Surely not, because the place where the baby Jesus was born, told by San Luca’s Gospel, is different from the one of the Adoration of the Magi(1); because, the two events happen in different moments; and because the word “crib” indicates a place utilized as a stable with several cribs, being the manger(2) and the crib(3) the essential elements of the stable. For this reason, we cannot call “Crib” a scene different from Nativity’s, unless we want to attribute to this word a general meaning of representation of one or more moments of the whole liturgy that are included in the twelve days of the winter solstice.
If we agree with this discussable conclusion and accept a generalizing substantive, we can forget and put aside all the precepts that the Catholic Church has set up during the centuries, as long as the sacred representations linked to Jesus’s childhood are not obscured by inopportune intrusions and mistaken contaminations. At the same time, the distinctions made by past artists are not to consider important. They called their pictures and sculptures: “Nativity”, “Holy Family”, “Adoration of the Angels”, “Shepherds’ adoration”, “The massacre of the innocents”, “ Escape in Egypt”, and above all “Crib” and “Adoration of the Magi or Epiphany”.
Even the sacred representations of Jesus’s childhood, (before medieval, then renaissance and baroque) through the centuries, also with high levels of theatricality and suffering continuous secular and profane intrusions, have not caused confusions or mixture among the several events told by Gospels, setting each episode in the precise order of the events.
For this reason, there was a following moment that caused confusion. If it has really happened many people ask: “ When did it happen? And where?”
Unfortunately, there are not constant and precise documents which attest the continuous correspondence between the word “Crib” and the related plastic representation with moving figures. Nowadays there are few documents and many hypothesis. However the ideas have become concrete, putting together those documents useful to the research. They can be subdivided in:
1) Transcriptions, written between the second half of the eighteenth century and all the following century.
2) Period pictures, sometimes accessories of the works, illustrating the crib settings(4).
3) Crib figures (shepherds) made between the second half of the seventeenth century and the first half of the eighteenth century, with particular attention to the roles (expression of faces) and clothes (if the originals
4) Figures of Magi
5) Untouched containers (“scarabattoli” and glass bells) complete of sets and shepherds.
6) Essays on the crib, written by credible authors with historical-critic purposes.
Apart from those considerations which are not connected to the representations of the Christmas and the Epiphany, it has become very attractive a probable and credible conclusion. Thanks to Fittipaldi’s(5) illuminating statement, to Berliner’s(6), Causa’s (7)and De Simone’s (8) observations, and to the study of this argument, it is possible to suppose a change of the representation in the first half of the eighteenth century. In fact many people began to prefer the bright and coloured scene of the Adoration of the Magi or the Epiphany to the mystic night scene of the Nativity. But in the effort to put all the elements of the Crib in the new representation, the set upset itself, making confused the symbolic aspects (9) and pagan (10) characters. To dismount the Magi and put them on the scene in the act to adore the baby Jesus means to cancel the symbolism which came out of the relationship between man/animal(11)and knights’order in the procession.
The outcome is the upset of the scene and the scattering of the figures. The shepherds, in the glint and the motley of new clothes, are stripped of their original roles (showed by the expressions of their faces) and distributed on the set. In this position they look like to some particular figures such as the “ peasants in the square of the country” on Sunday mornings. The scene appears as if it was a beautiful, coloured and bright picture. It is beautiful to see but it has lost that introspective aspect that only the old heritages and the popular tradition can bring to good representation.
For this reason, if the Epiphany was represented on the crib set with its original name at the end of the first half of the eighteenth century, we can affirm the scene of the Adoration of Magi was more suitable for the purposes of new reign. In fact it was more representative and more appropriate to persuade people.
Coming back to the Neapolitan crib of the tradition, the one called wrongly “popular” and represented with not always pleasant arguments, a kind of ecclesiastical moral tried to eliminate it. It was able to do it only in part. In fact people and the middle class continued to set the cribs according to Preborbonici customs. Nowadays, the artisan shops in San Gregorio Armeno, in a country and figurative version, product scenes and shepherds of the tradition. Maybe, the new image of the crib was created by a member of Dominican Order, Rocco’s monk, who spread a certain kind of representation: a royal example to admire and accept. It was an intelligence move but indirect, (because he suggested to the King to make build a new crib, fit for a the Reign and Family and able to attire fancies and approvals). The new work aimed at penalizing, by the change, that crib which he didn’t admire surely. In fact he didn’t accept all its contents and references.
However, he tried to protect the integrity of sacred representation in accordance with the moral and the dogmas of the Catholic Church.
Moreover, we have not to forget that the old figures of the Magi were almost always represented on horse during the procession. Instead, in the field of serial production of figures in polychrome terracotta there are two different representations of the Magi: the first one shows the Magi on horse, the second one presents the Magi dismounted. The first representation is utilized for all festivities, while the second one is to put on the crib on occasion of the Epiphany, instead of the equestrian series. The image of the Magi dismounted, in the contest of known production ( part of them are from “scarabattoli” set for the home adoration), asks a question: “ If there was a confusion, is it possible that it happened during the Union of the Italian States, while people were busy in other important matters?” Meantime, the Neapolitan crib, from many years in decline, tried to rise again and after a thirty-year period from the Italian Unity , returned to
Cuciniello’version: Epiphany or the Adoration of the Magi.
Resuming the subject: is it thinkable to simplify or generalize? Is it possible to put aside liturgies, sacred codes and practices, established by Catholic Church through two thousand
Nativity. The bridge, symbol of moving, represents the profane aspect and the sacred one.
10)Among many images…..Cicci-Bacco’s cart, referred to the old procession organized in the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Naples at Christmas, where metaphorically the displaced gods went to pay homage to the baby Jesus. Doc. 1429.
11) The procession comes from East, in order to the daily cycle of the sun. Melchiorre is the old King riding the white horse and represents the dawn; Gasparre is the young King on the red horse and represents the midday; Baldassarre is the Saracen King on the Black horse and represents the night. He represents the time that returns, the passing from the night to the light of the divine sun.
1) The Latin word “praesepio” indicates both the stable and manger – “… et reclinovit eum in
praesepio”- Luca (II,1-7). From the stable (cave-stable), the Holy Family moved in other
place: a home – “ The Magi entering the home found the Baby with Mary, his
Mother”- Matteo (c. II,11). The place, where Jesus was born, is a stable
(then adapted to cave-stable). The set of Epiphany is a room. Between the Birth and the Epiphany there are 12
2) Manger- wooden or brick box-shaped container, where you can put the forage for animals (the forage is a mix of vegetable products such as leaves of
lettuce, mealy fruit, turnips, corns, straws, roots, etc.
3) Crib – wooden or canes crib. It is put above the manger or attached on the
wall. It contains grass and feed for animals.
4) Three pictures published by Berliner in 1955, two by Leunenschloss and an other by an anonymous regarding the Neapolitan
5) T. Fittipaldi- Devozione e simbolismo nel “ Presepe Napoletano del Settecento”, III capoverso- in II mostra del presepe, Associazione culturale
6) R.Berliner –Die Weihachtskrippe- Munch 1955.
7) R. Causa- Il presepe cortese, in Civiltà del ‘700 a Napoli- catalogo della mostra, Centro Di 1979.
8) R. De Simone- Il presepe popolare napoletano - Einaudi 1998.
9) Among other images….. the fountain, symbol of
purification, is set along the route that brings to the Nativity. The bridge, symbol of
moving, represents the profane aspect and the sacred one.
10)Among many images…..Cicci-Bacco’s cart, referred to the old procession organized in the Basilica of Santa Chiara in Naples at
Christmas, where metaphorically the displaced gods went to pay homage to the baby
Jesus. Doc. 1429.
11) The procession comes from East, in order to the daily cycle of the
sun. Melchiorre is the old King riding the white horse and represents the
dawn; Gasparre is the young King on the red horse and represents the
midday; Baldassarre is the Saracen King on the Black horse and represents the night. He represents the time that
returns, the passing from the night to the light of the divine