Magazine article The Spectator

Seasonal Thoughts about Another Endangered Institution: The Crib

Magazine article The Spectator

Seasonal Thoughts about Another Endangered Institution: The Crib

Article excerpt

We put up our first crib 42 years ago, when we had only one child (he now trumpets forth in the Daily Telegraph). One of the lambs has lost a leg but otherwise the set has lasted well and we still put it up, though now for the delight of grandchildren. I used to make a different painted cardboard background every year - Claudian ports, Mantegna-like palaces, even Piranesi carceri but I found that the children really prefer a straightforward manger. My father made cribs when I was a child, not only in our house but in the huge local church up the road which he had helped to design. He painted backgrounds to the church crib of the wild mountain country around Jerusalem, on the spine of whose hills Bethlehem is sited. He used to say, `What few realise is the cold of those bitter winters in the Holy Land. Our Lady needed the warm breath of the cattle to keep her baby alive.'

Christian art was the first to pay much attention to babies. That is the Infant Jesus's real legacy to aesthetics. But babies are hard to paint; even Raphael had great difficulty and few of his babies look genuine. The first realistic Baby Jesus was painted by Caravaggio, in his early work, `The Rest on the Flight into Egypt', which is still in the Doria-Pamphili palace in Rome. The baby is asleep, as is Mary, and both were clearly painted from life, the model for Mary being a favourite of Caravaggio (he also used her for Mary Magdalene). This painting has become my favourite, and I wish I owned it so that I could hang it in my bedroom in such a place that it is the first thing I see when I awake.

Pilgrims were visiting the supposed site of the manger as early as the 2nd century AD, and they often took home with them bits of its rock. Such relics became in turn part of reconstructions of the Nativity which soon began to adorn Christian churches. As early as the mid-7th century St Mary Major in Rome had a replica of the Bethlehem stable, with genuine bits of rock. It still has wooden Nativity figures carved as far back as the 13th century. Dr Nina Gockerell, the leading authority on the subject and author of the standard work, Krippen im Bayerischen Nationalmuseum (Munich 1994), identifies St Cajetan of Thiene (1480-1547) as the first to create a crib of the type we know, with movable figures in an illusionistic landscape. You could get additional figures, allowing you to change the scene and portray in turn all the events leading up to the birth, beginning with the Annunciation and ending with the Flight into Egypt, with the Massacre of the Innocents as a dramatic finale.

Recognising the potential of this cult as a theatrical aide to Counter-Reformation piety, the Jesuits popularised the crib all over Europe. They also took it to Japan, India and China. These cribs were made of nude figures who could be dressed in real clothes, handmade to taste. As part of the Jesuit policy of acculturation, the figures became Chinese, Japanese, Indian or LatinAmerican, and were dressed accordingly. In this respect the Jesuits were anti-historicist and universalist. They wanted simple people all over the world to identify with the crib figures, both shepherds and kings, so they encouraged carvers to make them with local features and skin colours, and to dress them in contemporary garments. Not until well into the 19th century was the crib `orientalised' with Arab headdresses and camels.

There were some superb cribs made in 18th-century Italy, especially in Naples and points south. Sicily was particularly fertile in cribbery, under the inspiration of the great Serpotta and other leading stuccatori. …

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