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Origins of Nativity Scenes for Christmas: Presepio Art a Three Dimensional Portrayal of Jesus Birth

Published by Glennis Chitty

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Nativity scenes are a visual story of the night the Christ was born in Bethlehem in a humble stable. Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem to pay their taxes. Because there was no room at the inn, they took shelter in a stable, or place where animals were kept.

According to St. Luke the Evangelist (2:7), Jesus was born in a stable or a place where animals were kept. The word Presepio, or Nativity Scene, today means manger or crib.

The Low Latin Translations for Presepio:

  • Creche – French
  • Crib – English
  • Krippe – German
  • Szopka – Poliah
  • Wertep – Russian

Nativity and Presepio

The Nativity is the scene of the figures in the Holy Event of Christ’s birth. A Presepio includes the Nativity and the scenery around the Nativity. Artistic scenes with elements such as houses, plants and rocks arranged around the Nativity are a Presepio.

Presepio and Nativity scenes evolved in phases. At first the figures were found in churches. Early figures placed at side altars of churches were at first painted then carved. During the Christmas Season the Presepio was decorated with flowers and lights.

Later the tradition of a Presepio became popular among the nobility. Highly artistic Nativity scenes became more richly decorated. Eventually the tradition extended to all social classes.

Some scholars believe that the earliest Nativity scene dates back to 2nd century AD in the catacombs of St. Priscilla. The fresco portrays the Mother and Child, Three Wise Men and Saint Joseph (perhaps prophet Isaiah). Above the scene is a star with eight points.

In the 4th and 5th century some bas-relief work was found on marble sarcophagi. Eventually the Presepio started to resemble the three dimensional portrayal that is seen today.

Most scholar’s agree that the oldest Presepio in Italy is a Nativity Scene in marble. The scene is attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio around 1289. This Presedio can still be seen in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in Rome. Up until 1870 many Catholic Popes celebrated Christmas Mss at this Nativity scene.

Saint Francis of Assisi

St. Francis is traditionally attributed with presenting the Nativity. In Christmas of 1223 he took a manger and filled it with hay, in the village of Greccio, near Assisi. The crib built in Greccio did not have the figures of the Nativity in Bethlehem. The Characters, Mary, Joseph and the Christ Child were not present.

Early Nativity Scenes

Early Nativity scenes were seen in Italy, Portugal, Spain and German speaking countries. Each of this countries developed a unique style of using materials and carving methods. Figures may have been carved in marble or wood.

Nativity Scenes

Today Nativity scenes can be found at churches, in town squares, in front lawn and in homes. Life-sized figures depicting the night of the Holy birth of Jesus may be found outdoors. Inside, Nativity scenes decorate table tops.

Nativity Scenes are a remembrance of the true meaning of Christmas. On the very first Christmas, Jesus was born in a humble stable to save the souls of all who would believe in Him.

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