The Neapolitan Crib Scene
At the time of the Ancient Greeks it was the custom to donate a terracotta statue to Demeter, who was the goddess of abundance. Later, with the advent of Rome, the same gift was made to Ceres. These clay statues were made in the network of allies in Naples which today is known as San Gregorio Armeno.
The little pagan figures from two thousand four hundred years ago were called “stipi votive”.To consider them the forerunners of the shepherds used in nativity scenes is a wild fantasy, although it is a fact that in that same close-knit urban area, a specific traditional craft has been continued. The Protevangelium of St. James relates that at the exact moment in which Jesus was born, the entire world became completely immobile. The nativity scene illustrates that moment which changed history. And yet the nativity scene is everything but immobile. It is never the same, year after year it is modified and enriched, a constant reflection of the customs and habits of those who prepare it. Neapolitan families hand down the tradition from generation to generation.
So many figures were not used originally in the cult of the Nativity scene. The Gospels tell only of the birth of Jesus, the revelation to the shepherds and the adoration of the Magi. New elements which were destined to become tradition were later added by the Evangelists of the Apocrypha.
Many attribute a precise date to the tradition of the Nativity scene: 24th December 1223 when St. Francis of Assisi chose to honour Naples in a most unusual way. For fifteen years, sacred representations had been prohibited, St. Francis of Assisi, coming to Greccio, asked Pope Onorio lll for exemption. He re-built the Nativity scene in a cave in the woods and a few minutes before midnight the church bells called all the inhabitants of Greccio and the surrounding area to the cave; St. Francis suddenly felt something drop into his arms, he looked down to see that the baby had appeared in his hands; many of the devout people of Greccio swore that they, too, had witnessed what had happen that night. From then on, the tradition spread everywhere. At the end of 16th century even the convents competed to make the most elaborate Nativity scene. After the first two decades of the century, there was an important turning point; the round statues were replaced with wooden dolls dressed in cloth, with glass eyes and impressive wigs. The models for these had been made half a century earlier in Germany, but the Neapolitan pieces had no rivals for their opulence and dimensions. Alongside the artists who produced figuresfor the gentry and religious places, an ever increasing number of simple craftsmen worked to supply the mass. First in line among the artists was Giuseppe Sanmartino, the greatest Neapolitan sculptor of 18th century who is remembered specially for his Veiled Christ in the Chapel of Sansevero and for the many legends which are connected with him. Still today San Gregorio Armeno, with its workshops and street stalls, is the heart of the Neapolitan Christmas, a "must" for a sentimental stroll in search of a new piece to add to the Nativity scene.