How was the Nativity scene born?
The origins of the word nativity go back to the Latin word praesaepe, which literally means manger. Its first mention, of course, dates back to the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, where the birth of the little baby Jesus is narrated. As is well known, Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem to escape the persecutions of Herod. Here, the "two sacred parents" found shelter in a humble stable where the birth of little Jesus took place, at night and in the cold, without the presence of any "warming" animal, as the subsequent tradition testifies. In fact, absent in the Gospels, the ox and the donkey are essential elements of subsequent popular legends, cardinal elements in the narrative structure of the nativity scene.
The birth of the Neapolitan nativity scene
The Nativity scene has been depicted since the beginnings of Christianity. The first early Christian representations in the Catacombs of Rome are epochal. With the subsequent affirmation of Christianity, the Nativity was represented inside the churches, both in sculpture and in painting.
The first and authentic reconstruction of the crib in "3D" was made by St. Francis of Assisi in 1223. The saint, deeply affected the previous year by a trip to the Holy Land, decided to propose the reconstruction of the sacred episode to Pope Honorius III. . And then, given the ban on representing sacred episodes in churches, the pope authorized St. Francis to represent the sacred event with an outdoor mass in Greccio, in Umbria. Here, thanks to the help of a natural cave, all the characteristics of that night were reconstructed: in the presence of a large number of farmers and friars, the first living nativity scene in history was born.
Instead, for the first sculptural representation, it is necessary to wait until 1283 for the famous crib by Arnolfo di Cambio. Consisting of eight gothic-style statuettes, the Tuscan sculptor's masterpiece is preserved in the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome and has given life to a long and centuries-old tradition that spread from Tuscany to the Kingdom of Naples, in that authentic leader of the crib tradition.
The crib art in Naples
It was between the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, in fact, that the Neapolitan masters introduced important innovations in the crib art, codifying their own personal elaboration of the genre: in fact these enriched the original Nativity scene with characters taken from everyday life. A feature that makes the Neapolitan nativity scene unique, as can be clearly seen walking among the typical stalls of San Gregorio Armeno. Today the Neapolitan crib tradition has expanded its range of action, depicting the most disparate professions and the most important VIPs of the moment, thus becoming a mirror of social and political reality. A fruitful and creative way to unite the sacred world with the profane world with sarcastic intelligence.
Before ending, however, our brief excursus on this ancient artisan tradition, we invite you to go to the Certosa di San Martino to admire the eighteenth-century Cuciniello crib, an authentic masterpiece of the genre, the Sistine Chapel of crib art.