Eager to make the gospel story of the nativity vivid, St. Francis built an outdoor tableau at Greccio in 1223. He filled a real manger with straw, and installed a life-sized figure of the Christ-child, flanking the crib with living animals and people. During the Mass that followed, legend says that the Infant came to life in his arms.
St. Francis’ example and his emotive spirituality stimulated people’s desire to picture, touch and re-enact the mysteries of salvation. However, he might be shocked at the enormous industry surrounding creche sets today.
Initially, pious interest focused only on cuddlesome images of the Infant. But the late medieval practice of changing altar panels to match the liturgical seasons led to experiments with freestanding statues to illustrate salvation history. Bambino statues exported from Italy and holy cribs honored in Northern European convents may have attracted additions to make an appealing Christmas scene. Groups of figures representing the Nativity began appearing in German churches in the late 1400’s.
The concept was perfected in Italy. The earliest privately owned crib set belonged to the Duchess of Malfi in 1567. Nativity scenes carved from wood or molded from wax were used for Counter-Reformation catechesis. In the early 17th century, the Jesuits promoted them throughout Germanic lands, where they are called krippen.
In the same era, Neapolitans added non-biblical figures to accompany the Babe and round out the Christmas story. Although the Holy Family wore conventional ancient costumes, they dressed the other sculptures in contemporary garb made of real cloth and placed them against local architectural settings and landscapes. The resulting composition was called a presepe, from the Latin presepio, “manger”.
After Carlo III of Spain became King of Naples in 1734, enthusiasm for manger scenes raised the practice to new heights. His royal presepe contained a thousand figures with Capodimonte porcelain heads and wooden bodies, wearing embroidered silk garments and real jewelry. Soon, aristocrats throughout Europe competed to acquire the finest sets.
Ironically, crib building received fresh impetus in Germanic regions during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries when “enlightened” monarchs barred them from churches. People set them up in their homes instead. In Austrian-ruled Cracow, cribs became model buildings populated by holy figures, carried door-to-door by carolers. Continuing demand for domestic sets made Munich the chief center of crib production throughout the 19th century.
The English speaking world was not always so receptive. When Catholics first set up Nativity scenes in Victorian England, an Anglican clergyman publicly scorned their efforts as spiritual baby food of an unhealthy sort. Today, even Protestant congregations stage living Nativity scenes, in much the same spirit that St. Francis brought to his original presepio eight centuries ago.