Catholic Culture Liturgical Living
Catholic Culture Liturgical Living

The Traditions of the Christmas Manger

by Micaela Biferali


In this article, Inside the Vatican looks at the venerable tradition of the Christmas manger scene, specifically describing the Naples, Sicilian, and Roman schools of artistry.

Larger Work

Inside the Vatican


30 – 36

Publisher & Date

Urbi et Orbi Communications, New Hope, KY, December 2004

It is December, for many a time not only to think about presents and a Christmas tree, but also to prepare the manger, a point of pride in many Christian homes for centuries. For traditionalists, the manger should be exhibited beginning on November 29, the first day of the Novena of the Immaculate Conception. Inside the Vatican looks at the venerable tradition of the Christmas manger scene and interviews a modern artist continuing the ancient art.

The term manger comes from the Latin praesepe and means "place where animals eat." We find the expression in the Gospel of Luke, "Mary placed Him in the manger," found also in the Gospel of Matthew and in the apocryphal writers.

The most famous manger is in Greccio, a mountain town in Italy where, on Christmas Night 1223, it is said, St. Francis of Assisi first re-enacted the nativity scene using live persons. This tradition was picked up again in 1973 and has continued ever since in Greccio, now involving more than 100 participants and 5 different scenes.

Throughout the Middle Ages, manger scenes with live participants were common. Sculptured figurines developed later, and in the 1700s, artisan schools for the construction of mangers became popular. Manger scenes then began to be recognized according to the region where they were developed.

The "Naples" School

One of the most well-known manger schools in the world is based in Naples. During the Baroque period of the 1600s, rich and sumptuously decorated mangers with a didactic purpose were common in Naples. It was in this period that the scenery of the manger began to take on importance, with attention to lighting, using mirrors and sheet metal. Gradually, non-religious elements were introduced: the market, fountains, a tavern, that had little to do with the Holy Birth.

Out of this "secularization" of the manger scene grew, in the 1700s, the "Naples school." The growth of the middle classes demanded mangers reduced in size and economically accessible for all.

Today's Neapolitan mangers are direct descendants from those of the 1700s.

The Via San Gregorio Armerio in Naples is known to locals as the "Via of Mangers," a street which bustles with visitors in the days before Christmas.

The defining feature of a Neapolitan manger scene is the introduction of extraneous figures: popular politicians, sports players, musicians.

The real originality of the Neapolitan manger is found in its accessories: precious crowns of emeralds and diamonds and hand painted figurines of wood or terracotta dressed with the utmost care and elegance.

Sicilian School

Beginning in the 16th century in Sicily, children set aside money to buy figurines for their mangers. The most important center for the creation of mangers was in Caltagirone, where they worked mostly in clay. From the 1700s, all social classes had a manger in their homes during Christmas and participated in contests for whose was the most beautiful.

The key figures of the manger scenes were produced in artisan workshops alongside the extraneous figurines which had become a part of the traditional iconography.

Roman School

Even Rome, seat of the papacy, had its "manger tradition." The tradition began in 1280 when Arnolfo di Cambio sculpted Rome's first manger scene, portions of which (the Three Kings, St. Joseph, the donkey and the ox) are intact and kept in the Basilica of St. Mary Major in a crypt beneath the church.

In the 1800s, the manger scene entered into private houses, churches and convents. Important families proudly exhibited their scenes, created by famous artists. More modest mangers could be created by buying figurines from the kilns on Santa Maria della Coppelle or at the markets of Piazza Sant' Eustachio.

There are two main qualities which mark the Roman manger: classic, clean lines compared to those of Naples, and a strong reference to the urban countryside of Rome: Bethlehem as district of the capitol.

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