The history of the Neapolitan Christmas crib


he Christmas crib was born, in the canonical sense, only in  recent times, “that Christmas night of 1223, St. Francesco……”

There are those who go even further back in time, as will see later. The intellectual affirmations ( above all those that tried to show the validity of their statements ) are not familiar to me, but I always try to get to the  “truth” of matters. therefore, in order to be sure of the facts, I have divided

The history of the crib as we know it, into different parts :

1)     The greek and roman inheritance.

2)     The crib, interpreted as being a part of figurative art.

3)     The miracle of St.Francesco


The representation of the divinities in figurines finds it’s origin in an antique era. The great works representing the gods though, did not ever prevent the common man in making his own symbols and of keeping them in his home. In the Acts of the Apostles we find this use mentioned, in fact St. Paul had to defend himself from the craftsmen of Efeso, because his preaching, according to them, impeded their selling of silver statuines representing Artimide ( Act 19, 24 and following ).

Now it is for certain that in Naples, where today the St.Gregorio Armeno street is,  proof has been found, archaeologically documentated, of an artisan activity, dated back to the V century b.C., which created  products in clay that represented pagan divinities ( in particular the goddess Demetra ). it seems in fact that on the spot where the convent of St.Gregorio Armeno now stands, there was once a temple dedicated to Cerere, the roman equivalent of the same greek goddess. The conversion of temples was a common practice in all civilizations, including the christian one, that transformed many of these pagan places into churches.

We shall speak in greater detail of this particular  neapolitan street (for it’s connections to art and “magic” ) another time.

The continuation in the pagan era was insured by the tradition of having in the homes  ( in the “atrium”, where the fireplace was situated ) small alters dedicated to the Lares, on which coloured clay figures were placed.

Moving ahead in time to the VIII century, Naples was host to oriental monks  of the St.Basilio order, “expelled” by Leone III, emperor of the east, who fought the cult of holy images. Of course the craftsmen who constructed these statues were exiled with them, and it was natural that they made their homes in the same area of St. Gregorio Armeno. 

There are some who believe that our crib was born from the pagan tradition, that we spoke about above, of keeping tender figurines in the homes. A sort of continuity can be perhaps found instead in the glass “bells”, or even in the statues of the saints, kept in many homes of neapolitan families, but were absolutely not to be found  in the crib.

First of all our Christmas cribs symbolize, certainly, the Holy event, but even though it is the central part of the scene, it is not the real protagonist of the representation. I should add that many who have a passion for this subject give more importance to other scenes (for example , the announcement to the shepherds, or the “diversorium”, scenes that certainly do not have a divine context ), than to the actual Nativity itself.

The crib, comes to life  only in the Christmas season. instead the Lares were also present all year round on the small domestic alters. If the  be truth be said, even in the homes of the aristocracy, where the representations  of the Nativity  occupied a whole room,  they were in any case locked up  for the rest of the year too. The real objects of the cult, like the cross or the statue of the Virgin Mary with Baby Jesus, were not for example “obscured” at Easter, for the only reason that they were a not part of that period !  Also the presumed continuity does not consider the most antique times of the crib history, created having two dimensions and only having three a long time  afterwards.