Year 1 - n.1 - December 2000


The origins  of crib iconography


he  word  “presepio” derives  from the latin “praesepe”  which means manger or crib and has it’s origin  in the gospel according to st. Luke  where it says that, Jesus being born, Mary “reclinavit eum in praesepio”.The entire episode related by st.Luke is based on the  manger so it is advisable to read the following text  with particular attention : “factum etc......

  In this story we find precise quotes regarding the manger, of the Baby wrapped in swaddling-clothes between Mary and Joseph, of the  angels singing words of praise, of the angelo that announced the great event  to the shepherds during the night, to the shepherds making their way to Bethlehem. In this part of the gospel, written by st. Luke between 65 and 70, we do not find any mentioning of  the adoration by the three Wise men.

St. Matthew  though  spoke at great length about them in the original aramaic text  which was published between the  1940’s and 1950’s. Here is  st.matthew’s story: Cum ergo etc


       At this point we ask ourselves : why is it that when speaking of the christmas crib nativity scene  we  find the grotto quoted  more  often than the stable ? Why do we hear about the ox and the donkey when they not mentioned at all in the gospels ? Where are the names of Melchior, Belshazzar and Caspar  which do not appear in st. Matthew’s tale of the three wise men’s trip? And why does the traditional christmas crib always represent the wise men as wearing crowns? Lastly, why  is Joseph  depicted as holding a flowering rod ? These questions are answered by the apocryph gospels  i.e. those scriptures written  in the first centuries  of the cristian erawhich, even though giving details of the life and doctrine of Christ, were  not included  by the Church in the rules the books inspired because they were only legends or deriving from sects. It  seems that the legendary gospels served no other  purpose  than to satisfy the pious curiosity of the first christians who desired to know  every little detail of  the lives of Jesus and the virgin Mary. They did not have bad intentions, even quite  encouraged on by the words of st. John, the evangelist : <Jesus gave many other  signs in the presence of his disciples, but they have not been written in this book>. Then  also :  <There are  many more things Jesus did but if they were to be listed one by one, i think the world would not be big enough to contain all the books that would have to be written> ( John XX, 30, and XXI, 25). Consequently , they felt they were almost authorized  by these statements to write  added details to the gospels.

      The legendary gospels spoke mainly about the birth,  childhood and  death of Jesus. They are : the  Gospel according to St. James, or simply Book of James or Story of Mary’s nativity;  the Transitus Mariae ( which tells of the death of the virgin Mary); the Story of Joseph the carpenter, a text probably of  the IV century written in coptic and in arabic, the original version of which was perhaps greek.

      Historians  specialized in western civilizations cannot avoid taking into consideration the apocryph gospels, so Daniel-Rops writes : < they have , in fact, left a deep impression in the costumes  and in the liturgy, in  literature and art>. A special attention must be paid to the study of crib iconography because it contains  important  data, in  that  authentic elements  of tradition could have been absorbed into  those texts. The Abbot Migne (1800-1875), the famous publisher of “Patrologia”, wrote : <To ignore the Apocryph Gospels means to renounce  discovering the origins of christian art>. They are the source from which, from the extinction of  paganism, artists have been inspired by that large range of symbols  that the middle-ages then amplified. The “Protovangelo” i.e. genesis 3. 14 , the Evangelo  of Nicodemo, the aurea Legend and the Speculum maius by Vincenzo of Beauvais ( 1264) ,the  philosopher –theologian and domenican priest,  in fact provided curious episodes of the life of the Virgin Mary and the birth of and childhood of Jesus to artists and  men of faith of the past centuries.

        In order to help  the reader understand the influence  that these texts  had on antique christian art and in  particular on the representation of the christmas crib, here to follow are a few extractions from the texts of the Apocryph Gospels (Massimo publishers, Milan 1979, third edition, texts chosen and translated by F. Amiot).