This crib began to be assembled in the 1970s through the acquisition from several Spanish collections of groups such as the Nativity itself (Virgin, Child and Saint Joseph); the Magi; and other figures which enact the various scenes accompanying the birth of Christ. One of the most spectacular sets is that of the angels, which hover above the buildings, some holding small metal incense burners. Their dynamism, movement and strength are conveyed by the folds of their tunics and cloth bands, which form vigorous zigzags. These full-length adoring angels have been progressively incorporated into the nativity scene, one by one, over a period of several years.
The figures known as pastori are crafted from various materials: their heads and chests are made of terracotta and their hands and feet of wood; their bodies are constructed from a wire skeleton wrapped in tow, to make them mobile. The clothes, veritable works of art, reflect each figure’s social status. Those worn by the lower classes are particularly striking on account of their variety and exquisite detail. Mary, in pink and deep blue, and Saint Joseph, in purple and yellow, are dressed according to Neapolitan tradition. The pastori are attached to the setting by spikes on the soles of their feet or shoes, which are driven into the cork ground to stabilise them.
As well as the backdrop and landscape, the nativity scene features animals such as chickens, a cockerel and a goat, all masterfully crafted, and certain accessories or finimenti, which help the viewer identify the figures’ trades and are modelled from different materials. The fruit and foodstuffs are made of wax, but wood, clay and metal are also used for the objects carried by the Magi and the angels’ incense burners.
Neapolitan nativity scenes enjoyed their height of splendour in the second half of the 18th century, when the custom spread from the religious church environment to the domestic realm of palaces and noble residences. One of the distinctive features that make scenes of this kind special is their lavish staging, sometimes with a profuse array of figures, which faithfully illustrates the day-to-day life and activities of the lower classes of the period. We find groups such as street vendors, passers-by, musicians, travellers, customers, innkeepers and a long list of trades. They all envelop the birth of Jesus in a lively and expressive atmosphere.
This nativity scene has been generously loaned by its owner to be displayed at the Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza.