Setting up the nativity scene today seems
one of the most expanded traditions in the Christian world. However, it is not
as old as it might seem. This type of popular recasting of the Christmas story
can be traced to the aftermath of the council of Trent (1563). There can be no
doubt that the crib covered and absorbed a much older set of rituals connected
with the celebration of the winter solstice. We can discern their pagan
elements in rites that start at the threshold of the “dead” season at Halloween
by paying tribute to the deceased ancestors, in Christian calendar referred to
as All Souls’ Day. Sowing of wheat in shallow vessels on St Barbara’s day (4thDecember) or on St Lucy's day (13th December), which has been
considered the winter solstice in popular belief, contributed, besides the
symbolic expectation of renewal of nature, green decoration in homes adorned
with evergreen plants that foreshadowed the victory of the sun over darkness.
Such holiday decoration was called “Bethlehem”.
The husband led the house rituals, thus it was his assignment to set up the
crib during past centuries. This tradition vanished about a hundred years ago
and setting up the crib became the joy of children. The place of the crib was usually on a shelf
in the “God's corner” under the Crucifix.
The Christmas story is described only
briefly in the Gospels, but given more attention in the apocryphal Protoevangelium of James (Greek, 4thcentury) and The Book About the Origin of
the Blessed Mary and the Childhood of the Saviour by Pseudo-Matthew (Latin,
4th or 5th century), also called the Gospel of Mary. At the same time depictions on sarcophagi and
catacomb frescoes appear. Visual arts developed a rich tradition of imagining
the event in Bethlehem, which reached its zenith in the final two centuries of
the Middle Ages. In Slovenian churches from that time, the inner northern wall
was usually without any openings and reserved for the grand narrative of
journey and the adoration of the Magi, from the departure from Herod’s palace
to the visit in the Bethlehem stable.
The nativity scenes in churches were not a
complete innovation: besides in wall paintings, the scenes existed in special
shrines and were not bound to the liturgical year. According to a legend St.
Francis of Assisi set up the first “live” crib in 1223 by filling the crib with
hay for an ox and an ass at the altar during mass on Christmas Eve. This event,
however, has not triggered a general practice. The first “seasonal” crib was
set-up in a church in Coimbra, Portugal by the Jesuits in 1560; Prague followed
in two years. From 17th century onwards, they became a feature in
the private abodes of aristocratic and well-off families and, on the Apennine
peninsula in more modest forms, in the homes of regular people. The crib occurred
in Slovenian lands only after 1700 and became more widespread from 1800 on. Up
until around 1900 they were of “domestic” type, characterized and influenced by
local surroundings and ways of life. They were carved of wood or made of wax
and before the end of the 19th century also cast in plaster. Paper
crib appeared quite early in the late 18th century and was usually
meant for colouring by hand. Later cribs were extendable and limited to the
stable and the most important protagonists. Paper cribs are a cheaper version
of and usually a simplification of the ones made from wooden boards and
Gaspari’s crib was designed in the oldest
tradition of “domestic” paper nativity scenes. They were issued in 1919 in
Ljubljana by the Umetniška propaganda Publishing House, which was led by
businessperson and art collector Hugo Uhliř and Janez Zorman, the President of
the Society of the National Gallery. The lithographic print in eight sheets set
the story from Bethlehem into local environment and presented the figures in
Slovenian national costume. They were given a nickname “Yugoslavian Crib”,
since the Magi and their retinue wear Slovenian, Croatian and Serbian costumes.
The first edition, already in the new country, was well-received in the press.
Some writers mentioned the influence of Czech painter Mikoláš Aleš and had
doubts about Mary and Joseph wearing Slovenian costume, but the public embraced
them. The painter proudly let his friend Niko Sadnikar know that the scene will
be available for Christmas. Due to the general shortages of the first post-war
years, the paper used was of inferior quality, making a complete set today a
Tina Buh, National Gallery of Slovenia, 2018
In 2015 STUDIO ZIBKA, Robert Kužnik s. p., placed on the market a facsimile reprint of Maxim Gaspari's Slovenian national crib.
We are grateful to Mr Robert Kužnik for his initiative and cordial cooperation.
6 December 2018–6 Februar 2019
National Gallery of Slovenia