Spain’s mix of the modern and the traditional is second to none, in my opinion, but around the holidays, tradition naturally comes to the fore – and nowhere more in the case of Christmas than in the nativity scenes that pop up all over the country, in public and private.
Montar el belén, literally “setting up the Bethlehem,” as crèches are known, is, like decorating the Christmas tree for others around the world, still a Yuletide ritual for many Spaniards, and public examples also abound throughout the country. Belenes range in size from practically miniature to larger than life, and aesthetically from traditional to modern – occasionally even animatronic.
Interestingly, although many Spaniards think of them as very Spanish, they in fact come to this country by way of Italy, thanks to King Charles III, who back in the 18th century was also king of Naples and Sicily. And it was in Naples, at the Church of Santa Maria del Presepe, that the first crèches were created back in 1025. The tradition caught on in Italy, then the rest of Europe, first among the churches, then spreading to the aristocracy and finally becoming popular custom (Naples remains Europe’s crèche capital to this day, especially around this time of year along its historic centre’s “Christmas alley,” Via San Gregorio Armeno).
In any case, King Charles introduced the tradition to his home country when he began bringing back nativity figurines from the famous Naples porcelain factory of Capodimonte, a practice continued by his son Ferdinand I, resulting in a collection thought to number more than 4,000. And as was common in those days, the Spanish court and other nobility took note, and followed suit. A fad was born, which grew into an enduring tradition.
In the hands of local artisans, of course, over the centuries nativity figurines acquired some distinctive characteristics informed by Spain’s history and culture, drawing not just from Christian but also its Hebraic and Moorish heritages. Standout characteristic include use of clay and real cloth, and the flowering of the Baroque period set a classic style. Many of the artists who pursued this tradition in Spain are still remembered for it today, especially 18th-century religious sculptor Francisco Salzillo, who was known for bringing everyday life into his nativity scenes. Others include Pedro Duque Cornejo, José Esteve Bonet, Ramón Amadeu i Grau, and Spain’s first documented woman sculptor, Luisa Roldán (1652-1706).
And these days, even with all the noisy commercialism surrounding the holidays, public nativity scenes are as popular as ever (perhaps even more than ever); like the example above from Valladolid’s Plaza Mayor, they can be seen at shopping centres, public institutions, and a variety of organisations all over Spain, often as early as late November (they’re usually taken down by January 7). In fact, there’s a thriving Spanish Federation of Crèche-Makers, with more than 80 chapters.
Also increasingly popular is the “living nativity,” in which locals dress up as Jesus, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, the Magi, and so forth. One particularly well-known example has been staged in the Madrid province town of Buitrago de Loyola since 1988, with more than 200 participants, while in Catalonia the Girona town of Bàscara has been at it in since 1973 in perhaps even more elaborate style to recreate ancient Palestine, with more than 300 actors plus bells and whistles including caves, fountains, and flora; other notable stagings take place in Arcos de la Frontera near Cádiz and Cabezón de Pisuerga in Castile and Leon (there are also a handful of more elaborate “mystery plays” in places like the Navarran town of Sangüesa). Then there are those places that just have to push the envelope, as have Málaga and El Ferrol (Galicia) with underwater nativities or Córdoba with its chocolate version.
There are also several museums around the country where you can see examples of the belenista art year-round, such as Madrid’s Decorative Arts Museum, Valladolid’s National Sculpture Museum, and the Bartolomé March Foundation in Palma de Mallorca. If you should find yourself in the Andalusian city of Murcia, another fine example is the Salzillo Museum, dedicated to the work of the abovementioned sculptor Francisco Salzillo, a native son. One of the stars here is an enormous nativity scene with 556 clay and wood figures, 372 animals, 10 to 30 centimetres (4-12 inches) tall (detail above).
See you in Bethlehem!
images | Lourdes Cardenal, Sebastián García