A host of angels spiraled downward from the heavens to land on the little hilltop grove that contained Mary, Joseph, and baby Jesus. Below, mirroring the angels, rose a long line of villagers and nobles waiting to pay homage to the holy family. I was inside the Museo Nazionale di San Martino, Naples, observing the extensive Cuciniello Presepe. The room was darkened which brought the nativity scene to life with its earthy colors and dramatic expression. I had never seen a nativity scene so intricately made. What I began to learn from that moment was the profound importance the Italians placed on the presepe, especially during the Christmas month.
The word presepe actually means ‘in front of the crib,‘ and is designed to bring to life the story of the holy nativity in Bethlehem. St. Francis of Assisi is considered to be the author of the first presepe. As recorded by his biographers, upon his return from Bethlehem, he took it upon himself to recreate the scene of the birth of Christ inside of a cave in Greccio, Umbria.
The first presepe on Christmas Eve of 1223 was a vivente, or live, nativity scene. St. Francis orchestrated a theatrical reenactment of the nativity story using the skills of the local villagers. At the crib were tied a donkey and an ox. Biographers believed that St. Francis not only hoped to use this visual aid to help others understand the poverty and simplicity of the babe in the manger but also to encourage the people to overcome the rampant greed and materialism prevailing at that time in Italy.
The display a presepe today is a vital part of the Christmas ritual in Italy and begin to appear in homes and public places at the end of November. The street of San Gregorio Armeno in Naples is the most popular place to see nativity scenes which are viewable year round. Rome’s Sala del Bramante in the Church of Santa Maria del Popolo displays over 100 nativity scenes that range from centuries-old to more modern. Inside the 2,000-year-old amphitheater of Verona is an international event consisting of hundreds of nativity scenes each year with a Christmas market just outside the Arena.
Learn about some of the more popular presepe vivente here at Catholics & Cultures. These live nativity scenes in Italy sound amazing and well worth attending should you have the opportunity.
Have you had a presepe or vivente presepe experience in Italy or locally? I’d enjoy hearing your thoughts so please feel free to leave a comment.