From Giotto to Greggs: The Rise (and Fall) of the Nativity Scene
By Janis Petzinger
Nothing puts me in a good mood like miniature nativity sets and breakfast food. So, when Greggs swapped the baby in the manger with a sausage roll for their 2017 advent calendar, I knew what I wanted for Christmas.
As you can imagine, not everyone was as thrilled. Daniel Webster of the UK Evangelical Alliance said that this raises issues of commercialisation at Christmas time: “Jesus is what should be the focus of Christmas celebrations, not advent calendars and marketing to sell sausage rolls.” Other angry folk took to twitter in a raging storm. Greggs eventually apologised. And I’m still buying the advent calendar.
As much as I love the image, Daniel Webster has a point - how on earth did it get to this? How did representations of Christmas go from Giotto’s Nativity, Birth of Jesus, c. 1304, to a pig in a blanket?
It all started with St Francis, who pioneered the use of nativity sets on December 25, 1223, when he led a Christmas mass at the church of Greccio. What followed was a lively production, featuring an ox, an ass, and hay. The production supposedly brought many miracles as viewers engaged with the tableau vivant, including St Francis’s transformation into a sheep, the hay’s ability to save the crop season, and the visions of a man who saw St Francis reaching out to the sleeping Christ child, picking him up, and cradling him as he slowly woke.
The associated miracles during St Francis’s nativity exemplified the idea that religious subjective devotion could be accessed through visuals, as they make meditation on the gospel vivid without text. Therefore, St Francis’s nativity was not only the beginnings of a Christian tradition, but we can see the whole performance stand for the rise of devotional imagery altogether. This was a concept that was propounded by the Franciscans especially, who felt that in every element of nature, one could find god, because the creature should not ever be separate from his or her creator. The Franciscans started in the early 13th century and built friaries in the middle of towns where they devoted themselves to pastoral care, providing opportunities to large groups for personal devotion. This was in part accomplished by the Franciscan Sacrum Commercium sancti Francisci cum domina Paupertate, which presented the secular world as a cloister to worshippers, sparking other medieval theologians to embrace a world of communal accessibility; soon the Dominicans made a point of inspiring the poor and urban areas towards a more personal , image-based religious experience, and Thomas Kempis took one step further by urging believers to imagine the sounds, smells, and sights from biblical stories. Kempis was one of the leading founders of the Devotio Moderna, which influenced the Low Countries and Northwest Germany greatly. This idea was a reformation of the divinity of the early Roman Catholic Church, inspiring people to seek their own spiritual welfare and to secure contact with God themselves, without clerical intervention, and without text.
Therefore, we can see the beginnings of art history in the rise of devotional imagery. Nativity scenes are excellent place-markers for significant artistic developments. For instance, in Giotto di Bondone’s Nativity Scenes in the Lower Church of Fransesco d’Assisi (c.1305), we see the artist try to understand and negotiate between space and attempted foreground/ background sensitivity, before spatial recession theory was rediscovered. The density of characters also shows how this moment was meant to be a popular, adorned scene, rather than a private moment of personal reflection and devotion. Additionally, this work reminds us of blue’s significance. Blue pigment was hard to come by (as the mineral used to make it was mined in the Middle East), and merchants sold it for a high price. This is why we often find the Virgin Mary in the colour blue; even as it became easier to access in Europe, the colour’s association with wealth and the divine persisted.
Nativity scenes in late medieval art show compositional developments. In Jan Gossart’s Adoration of the Kings, 1510-15, we find a balanced composition creates a legible narrative, and the use of oil paint allow for more life-like rendering of figures (as opposed to the early medieval use of tempura paint, which didn’t allow for much tonal variation). Light and tonality was taken even further during the baroque period, which saw the use of chiaroscuro to light a few figures in the room and swallow others with a dramatic darkness, as seen in the work of Caravaggio.
From the early medieval to the baroque periods, the rendering of Christ’s birth changes dramatically. Since religious scenes were the most important ones you could paint, and the prominence of church commissions, styles naturally transformed to follow high market demand. But what happens in the following periods? The art-making didn’t stop, but the religious commissions did. The purchases made by kings, churches, and aristocrats were replaced by secular, national actors who looked towards more classical (and pagan) subject matter. From here, power shifted tremendously, as artists eventually started painting without considering the market or being constrained by a patron’s wishes. Their own interests revolutionised new styles in art history: Courbet’s realism and Monet’s impressionism were more concerned with everyday subjects, rather than appealing to the likes of wealthy buyers. In Geburt Christi, des Gottessohnes (1896), Paul Gauguin paints a nativity scene that transcends a high religious power altogether; the subject is Joseph, asleep soundly on a bed, with Christ and Mary in the background. Spirituality, here, persists in the calm and timeless routine of domestic life.
And here we are, more secular than ever before, left with nothing more than a sausage roll. While this might point to the problems of our hyper-consumerist society, it does not mean we have stopped making “good” art. Rather, I would argue that we are lucky, because today we do not have to find the most advanced art in a church or a palace; rather, we find it in some of the most interesting and unexpected places.
Buckland, Andrea. “24 Famous Paintings of the Nativitity” Creative Business Insider, http://the-creative-business.com/24-famous-paintings-nativity/
LeZotte, Annette. “Cradling Power: Female Devotions and Early Netherlandish Jésueaux,” in Push Me, Pull You: Physical and Spatial Interaction in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art, Volume Two, ed. Sarah Blick, et al. (Leiden: Brill, 2011).
Rijksmuseum (Netherlands), H.W. van Os, The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300-1500 (California: The University of California, 1994).
Rosenthal, Erwin. “The Crib of Greccio and Franciscan Realism” The Art Bulletin, Vol 31, No. 1(March 1954) College Art Assosciation.