Menu Shopping cart
Your basket is empty.
Support us


Exhibitions and Projects
Revelations | 2 Dec 2021–2 Feb 2022

Revelations: Nativity Scene of Štefan Šubic

From the Parish Church in Železniki

To this day, setting up a nativity scene remains a beloved Christmas custom, popular in homes, churches and other public spaces, where nativity exhibitions are common. The making of the scenes, both of figures and landscapes, is marked by extraordinary creativity and enthusiasm of various generations, linking the present with older traditions of our ancestors. European countries and lands cultivate a diverse nativity culture, with the most important one emanating from Naples and Tyrol. The latter also influenced Slovenian nativity design in the late 19th century. Foreign examples of scenes differ in the typology of the entire design and figures, which reflect geographical and cultural specifics and the time period of their placement. Traditionally, Slovenian nativity scenes were presented on the Holy Eve, 24 December, and retired on Candlemas, 2 February. In the meantime, on the feast day of the Three Wise Men, the set-up of the nativity changes, since the Holy Family, angels, shepherds and sheep are joined by the three Magi from the East, arriving with retinue. This is also the system of the large-scale church nativity scene in the parish church in Železniki, which this year represent the Slovenian artistic nativity tradition in the National Gallery of Slovenia. 

The nativity scene from Železniki belong to the type of scenery scenes that appeared and became popular in the 19th century − at a time when nativity scenes in churches became widespread. Usually, the nativity figures were sculpted and are associated with carving artistry, while the scenery nativity sets merge the painting of stage cribs with the backdrop made of wood that gradually opens towards the viewer and creates the illusion of a realistic space in the scene of the birth of Christ. Nativity figures, painted on wooden planks, can stand alone or be part of a larger group placed into a scene. Only a few of these nativity sets survived, making them an invaluable part of cultural heritage. The first such nativity was painted by Leopold Layer for the parish church in Kranj in the early 19th century. It was put on display for decades and was probably also observed by France Prešeren, the greatest Slovenian poet. The scene was later donated to the parish of Predoslje. There, in the interwar period, the nativity was replaced by a new set by the painter Matija Bradaška the Younger, which is put on display to this day, while the restored Layer’s nativity scene is kept in the Nativity Museum in Brezje. In the mid-19th century, the painter Matevž Langus painted the stage nativity set for the Franciscan Church of the Annunciation in Ljubljana, which was used up to around 1900, when it passed into private hands. Due to its poor condition, the painter Anton Jebačin made a copy, while the original is again with the Franciscans. The sources report of other stage scenes, but they have not been preserved or are not on display anymore. These types of sets are similar to the stage tombs churches erect during Easter, which have been preserved in greater numbers in Slovenian churches and testify to Easter customs and habits. 

The nativity scene for Železniki was designed and painted by Štefan Šubic (1820–1884), a craftsman and artist, for the newly-built parish church of St Anthony of the Desert. According to tradition, Šubic painted several stage sets, but the ones in Železniki are the only ones extant, and are, restored and technically upgraded, regularly on view during Christmas holidays. The scenes are painted on wooden planks, while the background with the view of the city of Bethlehem is painted on canvas and placed inside a wooden frame. The nativity scene consists of two central scenes on separate stages, which change during the festivities: the first backdrop features the birth of Christ, while the second the Adoration of the Magi. The nativity used to be placed inside the chapel of St Andrew, but today it stands in front of the main altar. During Second World War, the locals took Šubic’s stage nativity scene out of the burnt parish church and saved it from destruction. Its incredible value is evident to younger generations, too, which takes care of its maintenance and set-up. 

The author of the nativity scene, Štefan Šubic, led an artisan workshops in Poljane nad Škofjo Loko, which in the 19th century produced equipment for churches near and far, while his sons Janez and Jurij, the noted Slovenian realists, reached the pinnacle of Slovenian visual arts. In the Permanent Collection of the National Gallery you can find The Adoration of the Magi, a painting by Janez Šubic which continues the tradition of church paintings of his father’s Poljana workshop and its depiction of Christmas events.


Andrej Doblehar

2 December 2021 – 2 February 2022
National Gallery of Slovenia
Prešernova 24
1000 Ljubljana