Friday, December 22, 2017

A Traditional Neapolitan Nativity Scene

The Quirinal Palace in Rome, the official residence of the Italian president, is currently displaying a nice example of a traditional 18th century Neapolitan Nativity scene.

Although the invention of the creche is attributed to an Umbrian, St Francis of Assisi, the city of Naples can truly boast of having developed it into a particular art form, with the creation of a highly theatrical Baroque style admired and imitated up and down the peninsula. The Neapolitan tradition began with St Cajetan, the founder of the Theatine Order. One of his favorite places to pray in Rome was the basilica of St Mary Major, specifically, the chapel where the relics of Christ’s crib were kept. At the end of the 13th century, the sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio had made for this chapel a large Nativity set, several pieces of which survive to this day. While praying there one year on Christmas Eve, St Cajetan had a vision of the Virgin Mary, who handed him the Baby Jesus to hold. When he came to Naples in 1534, he set up a Nativity scene in the church of a major public hospitial, in imitation of the Roman one; this was then picked up by many other churches, as well as private families. It was also in Naples that the tradition began of dismantling the creche after the Christmas season ended, so that it could be reassembled, perhaps in a different way, the following year; previous ones like di Cambio’s, the figures of which were all stone, were permanent fixtures.

As the tradition developed, it became a kind of competition (a friendly one, we hope) to enrich the scene with an ever larger number of human figures, and make them continually bigger with the addition of whole buildings, streets, piazzas etc. The persons and scenes shown are for the most part ordinary folks going about their ordinary lives, a theological declaration that the sanctifying grace of Christ, which begins to come to us in the Incarnation, is available to all in whatever station of life they find themselves. Very frequently, the Holy Family are shown within a ruined temple, or some other ancient Roman building, representing the world which suffers from the ruin of sin, and longs for renewal in the coming of the Savior.

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