Thursday, 26 December 2013

Italian cribs

Boxing Day or St Steven’s Day has turned to night but we are still very much in festive mood. After all, the season lasts at least until New Year, doesn’t it? So I’d like to tell you about a great seasonal event I visited just before Christmas: an exhibition of outstanding traditional-style Italian nativity scenes in the crypt of the Helsinki Cathedral.

Although appreciated throughout the Catholic world, crib making is perhaps a true art form in Italy more than anywhere else. It was also born there almost 800 years ago.

This one was placed inside a glass cabinet. I apologize for the quality of the photo.
The Holy Family and the birth of Jesus have been portrayed in paintings and sculptures from the early times of Christianity. However, St Francis of Assisi is regarded as the father of the crib. He got an idea to stage a living nativity scene to remind people about the events of Christmas night. Liturgical rules were very strict in those days but the pope granted him permission for the novelty and he realized the first crib with three live persons, a bull and a donkey in 1223.

The show presents elaborate nativity scenes mostly from the southern Italian regions of Basilicata, Campania and Sicily. The setting is often a local landscape or view, either rural or urban, instead of that described in the Gospel.

The most impressive of them is a brand-new crib measuring 3.5m x 2.5m designed by the Sicilian artist Roberto Vanadia (photos above and below). The setting is a characteristic Sicilian village from the end of the 19th century pictured scrupulously from rural and architectural details to traditional outfits and utensils.

Someone is sleeping in the barn.

The scene shows 30 figures made of terracotta on a scale of 1:10. The villagers are engaged in their everyday activities while the birth of Jesus goes almost unnoticed. I’m afraid this might also happen to the viewer as the lightning in the crypt did not hit the child at all, which is my only complaint about the exclusive event.

Mary is wearing a blue gown.
The below crib is created by another famous master, (Francesco) Franco Artese. He was the designer of the 2012 nativity scene in St Peter’s Square in the Vatican. In addition, his monumental crib of 25 square metres is being displayed in the Turku Cathedral, the seat of our Archbishop.

Nativity scenes have been slowly sneaking northward from Southern and Central Europe. In the past few decades or so, they have reached also our shores. The local ones I’ve seen so far have often been rather homespun, that is compared with the exquisite works in the present show. With the current renaissance of artisan craftsmanship, I would be surprised if cribs didn’t continue to win popularity raising the standards also here.

The cribs in both Helsinki and Turku will be on display until Epiphany, January the 6th.


  1. I hadn't heard before about the Italian art of crib making. The cribs you saw look amazing and I love the ones recent created by the Sicilian artist.
    Sarah x

    1. They were all very skillfully crafted but the richness of the details in the Sicilian one was stunning.

  2. They're all beautiful, but my favourite is the more rural one. So much work has gone into these and they're so full of interesting details. Thank you for showing them :-)

    1. I totally agree. I would have liked to shoot more details but had to give it up because of the constantly moving shadows of the fellow viewers.

  3. Bellissimi....we call them 'Presepi' and every household makes its own for Christmas, traditionally putting the baby Jesus in his crib at midnight on Christmas Eve and the 3 wise kings on the 6th of december.

    1. Thank you for this additional information, Blandina. You probably mean the 6th of January, i.e. the date the three wise men arrived... We were introduced to the crib through a friend living in Spain where the Belén (as they call it according to the translation of Bethelehem) also is a Christmas tradition in most homes. I would imagine the Presepi will become more and more common also here.