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Behold the manger, from mud to magnificent

“As Thou didst deign to lay Thy self down in the manger of a cave, so now deign to enter the manger of my sinful soul and defiled body” – Prayer of St. John Chrysostom

They reside in kitschy, glittered splendor on the tops of toilets and are equally at ease in Europe’s austere and grand cathedrals. Collectively they are a force to be reckoned with and can barely be avoided in any Christian or post-Christian nation or even those doing business with them. These are the legions of Nativity (or crèche) sets you will encounter in the next few weeks.

Love them or hate them, Nativity crèches stretch back to those first century labor pains, leaving us a unique illustrated history of Christendom in virtually every land and era the church has graced. Truly they have reached into “all the earth,” even if Jesus was not particularly referring to snow globes or giant inflatables imported from China.

I won’t be making any presumptions about Jesus as an art critic here (“What would Jesus pan?”) in keeping with the spirit of the season. Being positive is simple enough when so many charming, heartfelt and even great works of art manifest in the form of Nativity sets.

Popularly accredited to St. Francis, legends attributing the first crèche scenes to him are wildly overblown. The Saint from Assisi (1181-1226) attended all types of Christmas events because the church had commissioned art, liturgies and reenactments for centuries. St Francis stressed a return to the rough, elemental nature of the birth of Christ. He loved Christmas, calling it the time “God condescended to be fed by human love.”

Francis may well have been the impetus for the Italians to create magnificent works of art representing the Nativity in every medium from St.Andrew cathedral in Amalfi to Santa Maria del Fiori cCthedral, Florence. Tableaus would become almost obscenely ornate into the Baroque era (mechanical, gem-encrusted and made of precious metals). But the simple, emotionally endearing outdoor scenes are the legacy of Francis.

Baroque pieces from the Neapolitan area of Italy are the gold standard of crèche sets in Western tradition to this day. Emulated across the world and revered for craftsmanship, the extensive scenery and extraordinary details reveal a frozen slice of 18th-century Italian life. These complex and often life-size installations appear in the Cathedral of Naples and many other European venues.

Neapolitan crèche figures, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City

Back in the USA, visitors to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art have had annual access to a glorious Neapolitan Christmas crèche since 1957. One gem of a village scene features an inebriated (or injured) blacksmith, compete with anvil and bloody hand. Beside him a nonchalant woman sews, an urchin sobs and cattle meander. This exhibit continues through Jan. 6, 2014.

Angola-jacaranda/ Tanzanian Nativity-ebony/ Gabon Nativity/ Cameroon-clay

Christmas in Cameroon or Uganda is not without a manger scene should you need one. African design may lack the proportional exactitude of their European brothers, but their art is absolutely its equal. Design sense is so intuitive for many African sculptors and artists such as the Shona, with their elegant, serpentine stone sculpture, used even in Christian Nativities. Similar to a Neapolitan extended village, some Nigerian crèche sets contain dozens of native animals, buildings, workers, gawkers and things you could only wonder at.

Virtually all Latin America countries create and sell Nativity sets with national variations in each one. Construction could be used to teach a primer course on sustainable, native or recycled materials. Mexican and South American crèches incorporate anything from spice pods, buttons, corn husks, coke cans and old clothing.

Seas of Latin American Madonnas in markets requires some beefed-up terminology. Spanish speakers may buy or create a “pesebre,” featuring an entire town or village, a “belen” or Bethlehem, or traditional “nacimiento.”

Dense and impossibly colorful, the “retablo” teems with modeled figures, fixed into stage-like structures. Still a tradition in New Mexico and other southwestern areas of the U.S., they traveled here and across Latin America with Franciscan monks centuries ago. Retablos exude a childlike wonder into the momentous scene, incorporating native materials, costumes and design into the rarified High Spanish church tradition.

"Nativity Retablos" by Claudio Jimenez Quispe, Peru

China banned the Christmas story for decades but has joined the world community when it comes to selling Nativity scenes. Before the Marxist revolution, Chinese Christians used symbols and patterns they understood, as do all cultures. They include lotus flowers, water buffalo and even dragons. A forbidden character of evil in the West, Chinese understand dragons as royalty. In the crèche a dragon represents Jesus as Emperor of Heaven or King of the Earth.

Europeans all have national crèche types with regional differences ranging from Sweden’s minimalist straw angels to Russia’s gloriously mannered icons of wonder and gilt. Predictable “new” Christmas crib designs appear yearly but few, very few contemporary artists take on manger scenes seriously.

A wonderful exception appeared from an unexpected source a few years back when Martha Fiennes (sister of actors Ralph and Joseph) created a somewhat random, digital Nativity scene, which was installed in Covent Garden, London. The traditional folks were present, but backgrounds, sounds and especially the presentation was all exceedingly 21st century.

Still and exterior of Martha Fiennes' digital Nativity shed, London-2011

Fiennes filmed live actors and used visual effects, advanced mathematics, Renaissance formulas and all types of technical gizmos, gadgets and wise men for her digital “manger” in the park. The slope-roofed shed with digitized front literally stopped pedestrians in their tracks. Quite effective, and may there be more in its image.

Visitors to the Verona Roman arena can’t miss the huge contemporary Nativity star that explodes on the ground beyond the Coliseum in spectacular fashion. Symbolically it seems fitting to host it where so many Christians lost their lives – giving us the “last word” through a sculpture.

Manger scenes are in some ways a metaphor for the church itself. A gift from Jewish Scriptures and Israel, Christ came as light and salvation for the entire world, requesting that his gospel be sent to all nations. He didn’t specify how exactly, leaving that to the imagination, era and talents of his followers. Possibly the lowly manger scene visually translated into every tongue and tribe is part of that commission.