The history of the Neapolitan Christmas crib


he birth of Jesus has always been represented by the figurative arts , ever since it’s introduction  into the liturgical calendar, that has provoked various discussions, even one about the exact date to use. It seems that  the date of 25th December was introduced between the third and the fourth century. The first certain proof  of this date of the year  is given by the roman chronograph, a series of historical details of the church, and these date back to the year  354.

Scenes of the Gospels (and the apocryph gospels also) are to be found in frescoes in the catacombs and on the sarcophagi of the palaeo-christian era. Subsequently, palaeo-christian and carolingian art used evangelistic and traditional sources as inspiration, celebrating the Holy Event with all the material available (works in ivory, wood, frescoes, marble reliefs etc.). In order to have a complete Nativity in three dimensions, with figurines, it is necessary to arrive at the marble crib by Arnolfo of Cambio, dated 1289, at the present kept in the Sistina Chapel, that is universally recognized as the most antique known. this must be considered only as a historical reference though, representing a particularly important artistic impression but being a long way from the cultural and common phenomenon of  the “family” Christmas crib, i.e. , the one  kept at home.

A great contribution to this end came from St.Francesco, who, in 1223, in Greccio (hence the french expression for the Christmas crib, “creche’ ), celebrated Christmas,  giving instructions to bring a manger to the castle of the noble  who was his host and inviting  shepherds, as his guest , who came to adore the Lord. A miracle happened, the owner of the castle told how he witnessed the Saint holding a “Baby”. Then  in 1234 the Franciscan friars received a gift from the bishop of Aversa; a small church that was on the same spot as where a century later the basilica of St.Lorenzo Maggiore was built, a locality not  very far from St.Gregorio Armeno. The minor friars surely gave an impulse in the celebrating of Christmas. the legend of Greccio was still certainly being kept alive, this was guaranteed by the  fellow-brothers of Francesco. Also the fact of having in the vicinity the street where  craftsmen made the holy figurines contributed  to the diffusion of the Christmas crib.the phenomenon though, was doomed to remain only in the church circles for still a long time to come. The fourteenth century offers us two examples (of those surviving up to this day) of the “ liturgical” diffusion of the holy representation: the wooden statues of the Allemanno brothers and the marble figurines of the Rossellini brothers. The examples are quoted, once again, only for their artistic and historical interest, considering that in both cases we are talking about objects of worship and not of devotion. the difference, extremely evident to any neapolitan, merits to be explained. Worship, in fact, is reserved (and rightly so) to religious services, in church. In every home though, each neapolitan family has a “devotion” for a certain holy object, that could be a cross, a particular saint or the crib. This is a tradition which surely has an antique greek-roman basis, but to say that the neapolitan crib has it’s origin in the Demetra cult seems to be really excessive.

We are now in the XVI century; St.Gaetano of  Thiene, in 1534,  prepared a crib in a chapel next to the “Incurabili” hospital ( then known as only St. Maria del Popolo ). the small church was called St. Maria della stalletta, (St.Mary’s  of the stable ) being the first to be made from an old stable ( note the miraculous coincidence ). St. Gaetano was the first to make the  changes that characterized the difference between the “canonical” cribs  ( intending  church cribs ) and the  family cribs: the introduction of figurines dressed up as people from Judea, in the time of Jesus, but in clothes  fashionable in the period of the saint. This had such an enormous  success among the common people  that Gaetano of Thiene is considered the true inventor  of the “modern” neapolitan Christmas crib, and, perhaps ( but we cannot be sure ) it is not the first  for the time factor, but, it is certainly  the most appreciated in the world today.

There is still a lot more to tell regarding the long history of crib making. the figurines are now made of wood, not articulated in any way; this means they are not very expressive and are not inter-changeable.

The sixteenth century saw the introduction of wooden figures that were articulated. About half way through the century, Pietro  Ceraso, a very clever craftsman,  was the first to have the idea of “dividing” the head and the limbs from the body. he was commissioned to make the Christmas crib of St. Maria in Portico. This was the biggest example  ever made using this technique. Just as important was the crib made for the basilica of St.Gregorio Armeno, on show to the public until the 1920’s. the invention of the articulated figures is traditionally attributed to Michele Perrone, another clever neapolitan craftsman. Then there was a real revolution concerning the making of the crib figurines, this change meant that they were made of different materials all used together, even for the same figure i.e. wooden or wax  heads, canvas-plastic. An important detail appears to be the reduction in the size of the pieces, this came about at the end of the century. During the entire 16 th century figurines were used of quite a big size,  after this period though “terzine” were generally used,  that were  figurines of about 40 cm. tall.

At the beginning of the seventeenth century the crib figurine as we know it was born: the head is made of  terracotta, a material that  gives the figure much more expression than wood does, and, above all is quicker to model. The first stage  was prepared using “cooked” iron, i.e.  left for a certain period in the ashes,  so that it increased it’s pliability, a particular  characteristic that created “movement” in the figures, giving them the maximum plasticity. the result was then covered with waste hemp (“tow”) before being dressed; height : 35-40 cm.