by Taetske | 2:23 pm
(Last Updated On: November 27, 2018)

 

 

St. Francis of Assisi and how he created the first Nativity scene in 1223

 

wood carved nativity scene

Wood carved Nativity scene

 

Christmas traditions from old times

Prior to the 13th century, Christmas was celebrated very similarly to how many people nowadays celebrate. It was like a party where you give presents to each other and eat a lot of delicious foods and sweets.
It seems that St. Francis of Assisi found it necessary to put a religious touch to all this partying as people, in general, had nothing to relate to. Going to church and listening to the Mass which used to be celebrated in Latin was not very helpful. People did not understand or speak Latin. A change was needed and after getting the approval of Pope Honorius III, he created the first tableau vivant (live scene). This was like a living picture with real people and animals.

 

statue of st francis

Statue of St Francis

 

This whole setup, with a real baby included, was made possible with the help of his friend John Velita who happened to be a knight. This first nativity in history was staged in a cave situated in the woods near Greccio.

 

torches

Torches

 

That year, on Christmas Eve, the woods were illuminated with torches and priests, together with the people of the village were singing hymns. When the Mass had finalized, St. Francis lifted a precious baby from the manger. It is told that the straw from that celebration, cured all diseases of cattle, a real miracle. The first Christmas carol, Psalmus in Navitate is said to have been composed by St. Francis. This could be sung outside of Mass during Christmas time. The idea of a nativity scene and singing soon spread throughout Europe.

 

Making nativity scenes with small figurines

The live nativity scene became very popular and each country gave it their special touch. Soon, people would start making nativity scenes on a smaller scale with little figures. In Germany, the nativity scene would be carved from wood and in the south of France, painted terracotta figurines were preferred. The French Revolution put a ban on real-life nativities but the small nativities tradition lived on.

 

 

The idea of having a nativity quickly came to Spain and even spread to the Nueva Espana, the Spanish New World (which included Florida, the U.S. Southwest, and California in what is now the continental United States).

 

Belen means Bethlehem

Nowadays you will find many cities and small villages where a live nativity is performed in the main square, or in front of the church. Spanish families all have a small nativity in their house. The Spanish word for nativity is Belen which actually means Bethlehem. These Belenes can be very elaborate and often represents the whole town of Bethlehem and sometimes the whole of Judea.

 

El Nino Jesus

El Nino Jesus

 

You will see absolutely everything which might have a relation with the birth of El Nino which is the Christ child. Maria and Joseph and the little baby in the manger. The animals in the stable and the shepherds outside with their sheep and an angel telling them the good news. Somewhere in the background, you might see the 3 Magi and their camels on their trip to Bethlehem. You may also see the Roman soldiers holding their drawn swords on their way to commit that hideous act of killing all newborn.

All this can be situated in a scene which might include caves, mountains, rivers, and houses. People from everyday life might be mixed in like women doing the laundry or a wine bodega and a street sweeper. The more you look the more details you will notice.

A Belen can be made from different materials but most often they are clay figurines which are painted. Some Belenes can be some hundred or more years old as they pass from parents to children in the family.

In Spain, there even is a Congress of Belenistas.
The first congress was held in 1963. 

 

Here is a nice video which walks you through a real Spanish nativity scene.

 

Estepa, the sweetest town in Spain

On what has become a tradition for us, we took our annual trip to Estepa to buy the Christmas sweets. On the way, we made a stop at a brand new museum in Mollina. The town of Mollina is situated at about 68 km from Malaga. It is also close to the Dolmens of Antequera, only 18 km away,  which is listed as a World Heritage site.  It really is a very special museum as it holds a beautiful collection of Spanish and some Italian Nativities.

 

A vision come true

The founders of this lovely museum are Antonio Diaz Rubio and Ana Caballero Mesa. Thanks to their vision and hard work over 12 years, this museum opened its doors for the first time on the 17th of November 2017. On Christmas 2006 the founders visited Antonio Bernal Gonzales in his house in Arcos de la Frontera to see his collection of Belenes and there the idea to create a museum to preserve this art was germinated.

Antonio Bernal Gonzalez, who is a well-known creator of Belenes, is Honorable Patron of the Diaz Caballero Foundation.

 

Our first visit to the museum

When we arrived we saw a very modern building standing in the Andalusian landscape, a slightly unusual sight. We had a coffee at the modern Bar/ Restaurant and then proceeded to get our entry tickets. As we are “pensionistas” we only had to pay 4 Euros per person. It was very nice that the young woman at the hospitality desk spoke English. Having a multilingual person greeting guests is a great idea, as I can imagine a lot of foreigners will visit this museum.
The biggest part of the Belenes presented here are Spanish and Italian but you will also be able to see Belenes collected from countries like India, the Czech Republic, Switzerland, and Austria.

 

St Francis welcoming the visitors

St Francis welcoming the visitors

On entering the museum

We were greeted by St. Francis of Assisi. This representation was specially created for this exposition as he is the patron saint of Belenes. He points towards a small maquette of the museum which you can see in the background and invites us in. Then we started our tour of the over 5000 m2 to see more than 60 Belenes, from very small to big and grandiosos.

 

arch of constantin

Arch of Constantin

 

Following up, we saw the Constantino Archway, in memory of Constantino the Great who was victorious in the battle of the Milvio Bridge. You can walk around this very detailed piece and observe it from all sides. It was created in Palermo/ Italy in 2008, and you may recall that this Emperor decreed Christianity as the official religion in the total of the Roman Empire.

 

adoration of the sheppards in the Roman teatre of Tarragona

Adoration of the shepherds in the Roman theatre of Tarragona

 

The scenery of some of the nativity scenes is rather unusual as you can see in the above photo.

I will present you with some photos I took with my digital camera and a few with a cell phone.

This sweet little Madonna was made in Castellar del Valles in Barcelona in 2016

 

the anunciation to Maria

The Annunciation to Maria

 

This scene is very detailed and realistic with the mountains in the background. It was made in Cremona, Italy in 2016.

 

italian nativity scene

Italian nativity scene

 

Just look at how precisely this old town is represented, the small stones the walls are made of and the cobblestone road. This is amazing with all the details.

 

detail of a town

Detail of a town

 

This nativity I find unusual because there is no cover for the Holy Family.

 

Joseph, Maria, and the child

Joseph, Maria, and the child.

 

On some of the photos, you will see the reflection of the flash on the glass panels protecting some of the Belenes.

 

a lovely nativity situated in a ruin with archway

A lovely nativity situated in a ruin with archway

 

When you go to the museum’s website the photos are professional and of high quality. For sure, more beautiful than the photos from our little camera and cell phone. We spent a happy and interesting time in the museum and whenever we get visitors we will take them to Mollina for a visit to the Belenes Museum. I have only put a few photos as I do hope you will visit this museum for yourself.

 

Source: Museo de Belenes, www.museodebelenes.com, and Wikipedia
Photo Source: Pixabay and Private

 

Perhaps you would like to come on a visit to Ronda a beautiful place in Andalucia.

Unique Ronda, A Special Jewel Of Andalusia

Comments

Nate Stone

Hi, 

Fascinating I didn’t know the tradition of how we celebrate Christmas was so “modern”. I was aware that we celebrate Christmas this time of year due to the replacement of pagan festivals. Some of those nativity scenes people have created are very impressive, I look forward to giving mine a shot!

Nov 27.2018 | 08:24 pm

    Taetske

    Good afternoon Nate,

    Thank you for leaving a comment on my website. I hope you downloaded your free PDF?

    I am happy to hear that reading my post has inspired you to also have your own nativity. It really is a lovely tradition to have. I have a little Christ child from Germany which I put under my Christmas tree in the south of Spain. 

    Regards, Taetske

    Nov 28.2018 | 04:05 pm

Nic

I have never heard of this before. The imagery you portray is absolutely beautiful. This is a great post that goes into detail. I have always wanted to travel overseas and this would make it to the top of my list.

Being fascinated with art in general this is a gorgeous depiction of what I would be wanted to see. Thank you for the elaboration and insights to this sacred museum.

Cheers,

Nic

Nov 27.2018 | 08:25 pm

    Taetske

    Good afternoon Nic,

    I am happy to hear you enjoyed your ” visit ” to the museum. I think it is well worth a visit if you should come to Spain. The good thing is they are open the whole year round.

    Thank you for leaving a comment on my website. I hope you have downloaded your free PDF?

    Regards, Taetske

    Nov 28.2018 | 04:06 pm

Barry

Hello. Christmas is almost near than before. Thanks for sharing this amazing museum nativity.

This is an amazing piece. I have been hearing about the Nativity. I have been attending one here in my country on the eve of Christmas but never had a deep knowledge about its history. St. Fransis did really well in creating the first nativity. Because of that we have kept this tradition and now even can visit this museum.

Nov 27.2018 | 08:32 pm

    Taetske

    Good afternoon Barry,

    Thank you for visiting my website and leaving a comment. I hope you downloaded your free PDF?

    Thanks to St. Francis we can all enjoy this lovely tradition of having a nativity in the house during the Christmas season. I am happy to hear you like my post, thank you.

    Regards, Taetske

    Nov 28.2018 | 04:06 pm

Kris M.

Hi Taetske,

What beautiful pictures!  Thank you for sharing these great pictures with us for those of us that aren’t over there in Spain with the opportunity to visit the museum ourselves.  This allows us to live vicariously through you!  I love the various interpretations of the nativity scene that are depicted in the museum from what you’ve shown.  How far away from Spain’s tourist areas is this museum located?  Is it big enough to accommodate large groups?

Nov 27.2018 | 08:34 pm

    Taetske

    Good Morning Kris,

    Thank you for leaving a comment on my website. I hope you downloaded your free PDF?

    From the coast, Malaga area, the museum of Mollina is reachable in 1 hour, so no big deal. As it is a 5000 square meters big place there is space enough for groups, even big groups.

    I hope you looked at the website of the museum as there are many lovely photos to see.

    Regards, Taetske

    Nov 28.2018 | 07:47 am

Angel

Thank you for your article on the very first nativity scene. I never even thought of who and when the first nativity scene was done. It was a very interesting article. It had a lot of useful information in it.Thank you for sharing.I think this is a great topic for this time of the year.

Nov 27.2018 | 09:11 pm

    Taetske

    Good Morning Angel,

    Happy to hear you liked my post. I also thought now was the right time to go and visit this museum.

    On the list is still an evening visit to Malaga so see the Christmas illumination. 

    Thank you for your comment. I hope you have downloaded your free PDF?

    Regards, Taetske

    Nov 28.2018 | 07:47 am

Linda Frankson

Taetske thank you very much for this wonderful post I have totally enjoyed your visit to the museum. I am familiar with nativity seans as I lived 31 years in Central America. my mother came to live with me for a time and she wanted to do a live Nativity with all the children in Santa Cruz. it was a wonderful presentation and the children were adorable. I can still picture it in my mind. You brought that memory back to me as you told your story. Once again you created a wonderful post to share with us. Linda

Nov 28.2018 | 07:19 am

    Taetske

    Good Morning Linda,

    Thank you for the visit to my website and leaving a comment. I hope you downloaded your free PDF?
    I can imagine how sweet that live nativity scene must have been in Santa Cruz. I bet the children must have been excited to do this and the people who were watching will have enjoyed it a lot.
    Happy that my post gave you a good time remembering things from your past.

    Regards, Taetske

    Nov 28.2018 | 07:32 am

Linda Frankson

it was a big hit, we gave all the costumes that Mom made to the Catholic church alas I don’t think they were ever used again but it was a lot of fun for the children to do. My daughter was three months old and she became the Christ I don’t think the Lord minded that she was female(o: she is now 36 years old, so that was some time ago.
The biggest hit was my brother brought the crowd together with Santa doing a pantomime, can you imagine a Santa with a white face it was quite comical. The children loved it. So that night we had the best of two worlds. Thanks, Taetske for this wonderful gift of remembering Linda

Nov 28.2018 | 11:28 pm

    Taetske

    Good Morning Linda,

    Of course, the Lord did not mind as a child is a child, if, it would be people who might get upset about something like that. I can imagine it was a lot of fun for all and that you hold this as a dear memory.
    Did you see the audience of the Pope? There was a little boy who could not speak who run around on stage. The Pope said that it was quite ok and that he could play there. Really nice.
    Our next trip will be to Malaga to see the Christmas illumination, that also will be a nice time.

    Regards, Taetske

    Nov 29.2018 | 07:06 am

Debbie

Taetske,
This was such a beautiful post. I thoroughly enjoyed traveling through it. You make Spain so inviting…I want to visit some day. I was raised Catholic and had a nativity displayed every Christmas but I never heard about St. Francis’s connection to it. Your information makes me appreciate it so much more. I just may have to purchase a new one for this holiday season. The pictures in the museum were beautiful …so inviting. Reading this post has really put me into the Christmas spirit and I thank you for that.
Merry Christmas,
Debbie

Nov 29.2018 | 10:25 pm

    Taetske

    Good Morning Debbie,

    I am happy to hear you liked my post and that it put you into the Christmas spirit. This museum is open the whole year round so if you should come to Spain you can go and visit and do not forget to contact me. I would love to meet my readers. Now we still have to go to Malaga to see the Christmas illuminations. Last year it was so nice as the weather was great with 20 C and in the evening the center was packed with people eating tapas on the streets.

    Thank you for leaving a comment. I hope you downloaded your free PDF?

    Regards, Taetske

    Nov 30.2018 | 07:15 am

Michelle

Such beautiful photography, I must say that I spent a wee bit more time ‘eating up’ the beauty of the pictures. Awesome and enthralling. And of course, I felt like I was right there with you two ‘pensionistas’ as we all walked through the museum. Spain is a rich heritage of cultural events, architecture, and great cuisine…and it would be remiss to not say anything about the wine. LOL
I have always loved the patron saint, and even more now, after reading your article. Thanks so much for sharing.

Michelle

Dec 01.2018 | 09:50 pm

    Taetske

    Good Morning Michelle,

    Thank you for leaving a comment on my website. I hope you have downloaded your free PDF?
    The museum is well worth a visit and as they are open all year round you should come and have a look for yourself. Besides the museum, as you also mentioned, there are many beautiful places to visit in Spain.
    I have been living here now many years and have as a habit a nice glass of wine every evening, one deserves it after working hard all day long.
    I am happy you liked my article and I hope to see you again.

    Regards, Taetske

    Dec 02.2018 | 12:11 pm

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