The tradition, predominantly Italian, dates back to the era of Saint Francis of Assisi who in 1223 created the first living representation of the Nativity in Greccio. Although images and representations of the birth of Christ also existed previously, these were nothing more than "sacred representations" of the various liturgies celebrated in the medieval period.
The first known sculpted nativity scene in the round is the one created by Arnolfo di Cambio between 1290 and 1292. The remaining statues are found in the Liberian Museum of the Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome. The iconography of the nativity scene received a boost in the fifteenth century thanks to some great masters of painting: Botticelli depicted characters from the Medici family in the Adoration of the Magi (Florence, Uffizi Gallery). In the fifteenth century Luca and Andrea Della Robbia also experimented with their terracottas in scenes of the Nativity: the one from the Verna convent is worth mentioning for all of them. Another Della Robbia terracotta, with a background frescoed by Benozzo Gozzoli, is found in the cathedral of Volterra and represents the shepherds and the procession of the Magi. Soon this type of symbolism was widely accepted at all levels, especially within families, for which the representation of the birth of Jesus, with figurines and elements taken from the natural environment, became an indispensable ritual. In the 15th century, the custom of placing large permanent statues in churches spread, a tradition that also spread throughout the 16th century. One of the oldest, still in existence, is the monumental nativity scene in the Basilica of Santo Stefano in Bologna, which is set up every year for Christmas.
From the 17th century the nativity scene also began to spread in the homes of nobles in the form of "ornaments" or actual miniature chapels also thanks to the Pope's invitation during the Council of Trent because he admired its ability to transmit the faith in a simple and close to popular feeling. In the 18th century, in Naples, a real competition broke out between families over who owned the most beautiful and sumptuous nativity scene: the nobles used entire rooms of their apartments for their creation, covering the statues with very fine garments of precious and glittering fabrics authentic jewelry. In the same century in Bologna, another Italian city that boasts an ancient nativity scene tradition, the Saint Lucia Fair was established as an annual market for figurines produced by local artisans, which is repeated every year, still today, after over two centuries.
In the following centuries the nativity scene also occupied the apartments of the bourgeois and the common people, obviously in a less flashy way, remaining up to the present day.
Symbolism and origin of the settings
The nativity scene is a representation full of symbols. Some of these come directly from the Gospel story. The manger, the adoration of the shepherds and the presence of angels in the sky can be traced back to Luke's story.
Other elements belong to an iconography specific to sacred art: Mary has a blue cloak which symbolizes the sky, Saint Joseph generally has a cloak in modest tones to represent humility.
Many scenographic details in the characters and settings of the nativity scene also draw inspiration from the apocryphal Gospels and other traditions. Just to name a few, the ox and the donkey, inevitable symbols of every nativity scene, derive from the so-called proto-gospel of James, or from a ancient prophecy of Isaiah who writes "The ox has recognized its owner and the donkey its master's manger". Although Isaiah did not refer to the birth of Christ, the image of the two animals was still used as a symbol of the Jews (represented by the ox) and the pagans (represented by the donkey).
Even the stable or cave in which Mary and Joseph gave birth to the Messiah does not appear in the canonical Gospels: although Luke mentions the shepherds and the manger, none of the four evangelists explicitly speaks of a cave or a stable. In any case, in Bethlehem the Basilica of the Nativity rises around what is indicated by tradition as the cave where Christ was born and this information is also found in the apocryphal Gospels. However, the image of the cave is a recurring mystical and religious symbol for many peoples, especially in the Middle Eastern sector: after all, it was believed that Mithras, a Persian deity also venerated among Roman soldiers, was born from a stone.
The Magi, on the other hand, derive from the Gospel of Matthew and the Armenian Infancy Gospel. In particular, the latter provides information on the number and name of these oriental wise men: the gospel in question names three Persian priests (Melkon, Gaspar and Balthasar), even if there is no shortage of those who see in them a Persian (bearing in gift gold), a southern Arab (bearing incense) and an Ethiopian (bearing myrrh).
Thus the three kings entered the nativity scene, both embodying the exotic settings and as a symbol of the three populations of the then known world, namely Europe, Asia and Africa. The number of the Magi was also quite controversial. It was definitively established at three, like the gifts they offered, by a papal decree of Leo I the Great, while before then it fluctuated between two and twelve.
However, some aspects derive from much more recent traditions. The Neapolitan nativity scene, for example, adds to the scene many popular characters, taverns, traders and typical houses of agricultural villages, all clearly anachronistic elements. This is, however, a characteristic of all sacred art, which, at least until the 20th century, has always represented episodes from the life of Christ with costumes and settings contemporary to the time the work was created. In the Bolognese nativity scene, however, some typical characters are added, the Meraviglia, the Sleepy One and, recently, the Curiosa.
Finally, the Trentino nativity scene is related to the wooden sculptures of Tyrol and finds a typical setting in some characteristic and original productions, especially in the lateral valleys of the Adige as evidenced, among others, by the nativity scenes of Tesero, in the Fiemme valley.