Every year, when Christmas approaches and the Constitution Bridge is left behind, millions of Spanish homes fulfill the tradition of riding the nativity scene. The figures, accessories, modern electronic devices to regulate lighting and sound and any accessory with which we expand our repertoire year after year are taken out of the old trunk.

The portal, also called manger, birth, mystery or pasitos, has a deep Catholic root, as it could not be otherwise. Some archaeologists even trace the origin of this tradition to Ancient Rome, according to the paintings found in the catacombs of Priscilla from the second century.

However, It is not until the thirteenth century when we can speak of a true sample of the first cribs of history. And so, they say that St. Francis of Assisi celebrated the Christmas Eve Eucharist of 1223 in a cave in Greccio, an Italian village where he prepared a staging of the manger with a mule and an ox. Years later, the architect Arnolfo di Cambio carved pre-existing marble sculptures of the current portal figures.

Bethlehem by Arnolfo di Cambio at the Basilica Santa Maria La Mayor in Rome.
Bethlehem by Arnolfo di Cambio at the Basilica Santa Maria La Mayor in Rome.


The nativity scene arrives in Spain

In Spain, the Nativity scene appears very timidly when the Franciscan monks begin to assemble them in the 15th century. We can still visit in the Monastery of the Descalzas Reales de Madrid its famous 16th century Coral Bethlehem, with figures carved in coral, silver and bronze. Outstanding authors such as Martínez Montañés or Luisa Roldán contribute with their works to the proliferation of altarpieces and cribs throughout Spain. In the posthumous inventory of the great Lope de Vega, for example, there is a collection of figures with which each year he set up a homemade nativity scene in the seventeenth century.

However, it was not until the 18th century that the tradition was extended to all households. Carlos III, continuing the Italian tradition of mounting a crib in the Palace during Christmas, commissioned a series of sculptures to complete the figures he brought from Naples. It is called "Bethlehem of the Prince".

In this way, the crib was established as an almost obligatory rite among the Spanish aristocracy, which copied the fashion of the court and that little by little passed to the bourgeoisie and even to the humblest classes. Although the figures began to lose artistic quality, the home-made nativity portal gained popularity, and now we can talk about the true origin of the nativity scene in Spain, as we know it today.


Nativity of the Nativity

Authentic geniuses like Francisco Salzillo made the portal gain popularity. The museum that his countrymen of Murcia have dedicated to him contemplates a nativity scene commissioned by the Marquis of Riquelme in the 18th century with more than 900 figures that is preserved almost intact. Other sculptors such as José Esteve or Ramón Andreu carry out works of the highest quality. These orders are increasingly frequent, and in the decades that follow both churches and public buildings, schools or craft workshops use the portal as a claim for their countrymen.

Although during the nineteenth century the pace of sculptural creation for the cribs loosened, due in part to the extensive inheritance existing in previous centuries, the tradition was already in place and would never be abandoned. There is the so-called "belenismo", or artisan hobby for homemade cribs. The Sociedad de Pesebristas de Barcelona stands in the last third of the 18th century as the first Nativity scene of Spain. The romantic voyages of this century brought to the portals of the time some arabesque and Far Eastern symbols.

Detail of the birth in Belén El Camborio

Detail of the birth in Belén El Camborio, in Arcos de la Frontera. Photography: Ana Pacheco

During the second half of the twentieth century the statuary creation resurfaced, devoting great sculptors to the work of the nativity scene. There is no longer a home without a nativity scene. Paper, cardboard, cork, natural vegetation and figures of different materials make up the home births of the Spaniards. But also the big shopping centers compete to have the largest or the most technological nativity scene. The institutions build their own cribs, and the living crib has become popular.

A tradition with centuries of history that will undoubtedly continue to speak for many more centuries. And you, did you know the origin of the nativity scene in Spain?


Fecha: 11 / 12 / 2015|Categories: History of the belenismo|Tags: , , , |

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