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Exhibitions and Projects
5 December 2019–28 January 2020

Revelations, December 2019

The Nativity Scene by Jože Plečnik for the shop 'Lectarija' in Ljubljana

The Feast of the Nativity of Jesus Christ – Christmas – was the starting point and inspiration for the development of folk culture with a multitude of customs and habits as well as artistic creations in the fields of literature, fine arts and music. The most characteristic and the most indispensable of all the achievements seems to be exactly the seasonal display of the static nativity scene, which has become a symbol of the Christmas season and a religious, cultural, ethnological and artistic phenomenon. It has not been a very old custom because initially it was only artists who depicted the Christmas story in churches. Only later the habit of displaying model figurines developed, in the way of “frozen theatre”, as it was called by ethnologist Niko Kuret, the greatest Slovenian expert on the history of the nativity scene and the man who followed the making and displaying of the nativity scene throughout his life. The first static nativity scene was arranged in the Slovenian lands in the 17th century by the Jesuits in the Church of St. James, Ljubljana. Gradually, the habit spread throughout the churches, but it was only at the turn of the 18th into the 19th century that it also spread to private homes, at first only in towns and later also in the countryside. The characteristic iconographic unit of the nativity scene consists of the Holy Family group in a stable or cave, with the ass and ox, shepherds with sheep, the Magi, angels and the star. In addition to a variety of serially produced nativity scenes, lots of which belong to kitsch, also quality original figurines were made by folk artisans and artists who in the 20th century also contributed several authorial interpretations of the nativity scene. Among the latter, architect Jože Plečnik’s nativity scene certainly stands out; he designed it for the Lectarija shop which used to be situated at Kongresni trg in Ljubljana.

The Lectarija was a shop that offered gingerbread baker’s and candlemaker’s goods as well as products of handicraft and applied arts. It was owned by Henrieta and Robert Freyer and the overall interior design was made to the plans of architect Jože Plečnik (1872–1957). They included a big brass spiral with holders for products in the shop-window, glazed wooden cabinets, a central stone table with scales and a chandelier over it and a brass candlestick.  The Lectarija was opened in 1939 and, thanks to its unique interior, the newspapers immediately declared it the most beautiful shop on the Balkans. After the Second World War it was nationalized and incorporated in the Dom firm, but products of handicraft and applied arts continued to be sold in it. After Slovenia had gained independence and the Dom firm had been privatized, the sales offer turned banal, and the overall character of Plečnik’s interior was in danger.  Hence, after the denationalization, the heirs, Agata Freyer Majaron and Rok Freyer, decided to donate Plečnik’s furnishings of the Lectarija to the Slovene Ethnographic Museum where it is presented as a museum exhibit in the function of a museum shop.

Plečnik not only contributed interior design for the Lectarija shop, but at the request of the owners – he was specifically associated with Henrieta Freyer – he also devised tiny decorative objects: nativity scenes, Christmas trees, chandeliers, holders for Easter eggs, paperweights, decorative stoppers, caskets, money boxes, mirrors, and other objects made of wood, brass and wrought iron. Within a decade, more than a hundred plans of this kind were created according to the architect’s ideas and were manufactured in small batches by his associates – masters of applied arts. Of particular interest seem to be symbolic nativity scenes which Plečnik devised in three variants, all of them consisting of a wooden stable in which a figurine of Christ Child was laid. The bigger nativity scene is conceived architecturally as a Christmas temple, so that in spite of its small size the effect is monumental; it was made as a single sample, for the Freyer family only. Two smaller variants of the nativity scene were devised as a stylized stable and were available for sale in the Lectarija. Plečnik laid the figurine of little Jesus in a nut shell and placed it on a bobbin-lace napkin; he also added chandeliers and holders for tiny candles to illuminate the nativity scene. Besides, he also designed individual chandeliers, two of which are in the form of a Christmas tree and one in the form of a semi-circular pedestal, differently carved and with a brass ornament with the Christmas star. Plečnik is well known for his great town-planning and architectural projects but less known for his tiny decorative items which – although on a small scale – are great achievements. His family nativity scenes are products of modern design which through the addition of candlesticks attractively combine the habit of arranging the static nativity scene and the habit of a more recent date: the Christmas tree. By means of artworks by Plečnik from the heritage of the Freyer family and from churches, screenwriter and director Edi Majaron visualized the broadcast Plečnik’s candelsticks… Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, which was produced by TV Slovenia to the recordings of Christmas carols performed by the choir Consortium Musicum in 1990.
Agata Freyer Majaron

Andrej Doblehar

Translated by
Alenka Klemenc
5 December 2019–28 January 2020
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana