St. Francis of Assisi and how he created the first Nativity scene in 1223
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
This scene is very detailed and realistic with the mountains in the background. It was made in Cremona, Italy in 2016.
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.
This nativity I find unusual because there is no cover for the Holy Family.
On some of the photos, you will see the reflection of the flash on the glass panels protecting some of the Belenes.
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.