By Judith Davis
Nacimiento – Presepio – Crèche – Krippe – Pesebre – Belén – it doesn’t matter what language you speak – these words all describe that most wonderful of phenomena – the popular representation of the Nativity, the birth of Jesus Christ. Scenes of the Nativity are known from the very earliest times in the Christian era. They appear in 3rd and 4th Century Christian catacombs of Rome as wall paintings and on sarcophagi. They were used on 7th Century decorative items carved in ivory and glass. Nativity dramas took place in the early churches. However, it was not until St. Francis organized a Nativity using live animals in Greccio, Italy, in 1223, that the understanding and appreciation of that special scene took root and grew, developing eventually into what we know today. The early Nativity sets were simple but grew more complex as the great families of Naples competed with each other to stage the best and most elaborate scene. An outstanding example was the 5200-piece 18th Century presepio of Spanish Prince Charles of Bourbon, King of Naples. The 1200 figures remaining today can be seen at La Reggia Palace Complex in Caserta, outside of Naples. Before long the custom of making Nativities spread from Italy to France and to Spain, and then to other parts of the world, following the spread of Christianity through exploration and colonization.
And so it was that the nacimiento arrived in the New World with the conquistadores and frailes in the 16th Century. The book,Nacimientos Mexicanos, published by the Fundación Cultural Serfin in 1994, gives a detailed history of the development of Christmas celebrations and of the Nativity in Mexico.
Fray Bartolomé de Olmedo was the first friar to set foot in the New World, arriving with Hernán de Cortés in Veracruz on Good Friday, April 22, 1519. He was followed by other Franciscans, then, Dominicans and Augustinians, and, much later, by the Jesuits. They all were concerned with the problem of how best to present to the Indians the stories of the Bible, especially those about Jesus Christ. They used paintings, sculptures, songs, dances, pastorelas orNativity plays, and carved wooden figures in this endeavor. According to the Franciscan Codex, Fray Pedro de Gante, who arrived in 1523, celebrated the first Christmas in Nueva España. He founded a school in Texcoco where he instructed the Indians not only in the singing of hymns, but also in the making of figures and backgrounds for Nativity scenes to be carried in holy day processions. Toward the middle of the 16th Century Fray Juan de Torquemada wrote that on Christmas night the Indians put in place a pesebre…which represented Bethlehem with the Baby Jesus, Virgin Mary, St. Joseph and the shepherds. In 1594 Fray Agustín de Vetancurt founded La Encarnación Monastery. Every year the nuns arranged elaborate Nativities in their cells. The making of Nativity figures continued. Initially called “misterios”, referring to the central mystery of the Incarnation, these scenes were to develop into today’s nacimientos.
There is probably no significant crafts area in all of Mexico that does not produce Nativities, and there is no single artisan who produces only Nativities. The sets are done in all media. Artists who do ceramics, wood carving, glass blowing, lacquer work, amate paintings, papel picado, or any other form of folk art, produce Nativities in addition to their other creations. Those “Amigos” who visited the “Hecho en México – Mexican Folk Art” exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man earlier this year were able to view many Nativities from around Mexico, made in a variety of media and styles.
Perhaps the outstanding quality of Mexican nacimientos is their individuality. Each artist or artisan interprets the birth of Christ in his/her own personal, spiritual, and cultural way.
They all place Christ at the center of life as they know it – a means to show people the presence of God in their midst. I have seen Nativities peopled by Aztec Indians – Huichol Indians – Subcomandante Marcos and Chiapan peasants – inhabitants of Tequila, Guadalajara, surrounded by maguey plants and with a devil figure holding a pitchfork and a tequila bottle – and even some made of radishes for La Noche de Rábanos in Oaxaca!
The basic Nativity scene shows the Holy Family, Mary, Joseph, the Babe, usually in a stable setting. Often there are an angel, an ox and an ass, shepherds and sheep. The three Wise Men/Magi/Kings enter, sometimes riding on a camel, an elephant, and a horse, and sometimes followed by their retinues. They may bring representations of the traditional gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, or their gifts may be items important in the local economy of the artist. Even though the shepherds visited the stable on the night of Jesus’ birth and the Wise Men not until much later, both groups may be shown arriving at the same time. Often a devil is included in the scene – where there is good there is evil also – or maybe diablitos, strange, little dog-like creatures. The Holy Family and the three Wise Men are often dressed in “Biblical garb”, or they may be portrayed in local dress, as peasants, with familiar landmarks, such as the volcanoes Popocatépetl or Ixtaccíhuatl, in the background. Or they may be portrayed in a setting completely removed from the traditional.
Outlined below and illustrated with photographs are nacimientos by eight Oaxaca-area folk artists, five of whom work in wood and three, in clay. Accompany me, please, as we look at their individual and personal interpretations of the Nativity event.
Agustín Cruz Tinoco, who was born in San Juan Oxolotepec, Oaxaca, is the carver of this fine ship with a buxom lady as the masthead. Notice that Mary, dressed in an every-day house dress, is seated in the prow with the Babe across her lap; Joseph is rowing; a “shepherd” type stands protectively on the back. There are platforms on both sides of the ship. On one are an angel and a King who holds a rooster as his gift for the Babe; on the other, are two kings, who bring gifts of a pig and a turkey. All are dressed “peasant style”. Each figure and each animal is individually carved and painted. It is a piece of exquisite workmanship. (purchased in a Oaxaca shop, March, 1998)
In Josefina Aguilar’s small, almost-traditional clay Nativity the Biblical characters are dressed for their time period. The exceptions are the shepherd with his lamb and the Oaxacan peasant women bearing various products typical of the area. Joseph holds a lily. This flower symbolizes “purity”, but in Joseph’s case it is also an indication of the apocryphal story of how he was chosen to be the husband of the Virgin. All unmarried men were required by law to bring their rods/staffs to the temple, with the understanding that the rod which blossomed overnight would indicate the chosen bridegroom. Yes, it was Joseph’s. Another story says that a dove landed on Joseph’s staff, and in some Nativities he is shown holding a staff with a dove on the top. In this scene, however, the angel holds a dove. (purchased in Ocotlán from the artist, March, 1988)
Next we look at a teatro nacimiento, a typical Oaxacan Nativity theater in which the arms and heads of the figures move when the handle on the side is turned. The teatros are made not just for Christmas, but also for other holidays. The figures are flat pieces of wood, cut out, painted, and linked together with string. The only truly individualistic note in this teatro is the presence of an orange cow. The artist is unknown. (purchased in Old Mesilla, New Mexico, April, 1991)
Luis Valencia of San Antonino Castillo Velasco, Ocotlán, Oaxaca, works clay on a grand and often surreal scale, but this nacimiento is almost completely traditional, albeit very colorful. The complete Nativity consists of 21 pieces, most of which are 12”-17” tall. Most imposing is the King who rides the elephant and carries the star. He is accompanied by 6 slaves. When I questioned the inclusion of these figures in the Nativity scene, I was told – “…pero, Señora, son los esclavos del rey! …but, Señora, they are the slaves of the king!” And, so they are! (purchased in San Antonino from the artist, March, 1988)
Perhaps the most familiar name connected with Oaxacan woodcarving is Manuel Jiménez. We visited him first at his home in Arrazola, Oaxaca, in the summer of 1983. I, of course, wanted to buy one of his Nativities. He, a deeply religious man, wanted to interview me to be sure that I would provide a good home for his work. We even read the Bible together. Mary, Joseph, and the three Kings are dressed traditionally, but the other figures are slightly outside the norm. The Babe appears to be a small man (but, after all, He is the most important person in the Nativity scene!). The shepherd boy is dressed in a medieval outfit (perhaps Sr. Jiménez saw a picture of a Nativity of an earlier time). The sheep he holds is separately carved. The peasant woman carries a basket on her head. The animals are outstanding. What I believe to be a sheep is tall and green, while the kneeling bull is bright red with blue ears. Only the donkey looks like himself. (basic set purchased from the artist in August, 1983; the Three Kings, in May, 1995)
In San Martín Tilcajete, another wood-carving area of Oaxaca state, Francisco Sosa Gutiérrez carves figures of all kinds, which are painted by Inés Vásquez Aguilar. This Nativity consists of 9 pieces. Here the angel is in a green dress and has green wings! The three Wise Men ride in on a pink elephant, a green horse, and a grey horse – certainly a personal and unique presentation! Objects not usually present in the Nativity scene, but which are important to the artist, are visible here also – a wishing well and a cactus. (purchased from the artist, October, 1993)
The third Oaxacan wood-carving area is La Unión, and the outstanding carver here, for me, is Octaviano Santiago. The bright aniline colors with which his wife paints the figures he carves can only be described as astounding. The figures wear almost-traditional Biblical dress but certainly are done in non-traditional colors. (purchased from the artist at his farm in La Unión, May, 1995).
Angélica Vázquez Cruz works clay at her home in Atzompa, the pottery town made famous by Teodora Blanco Núñez. One might say that Angélica works in the same style as Teodora, but her creations are strictly her own. Her grotto-like Nativity is peopled with individuals, animals, flowers and cacti, small figures exquisitely done. The Biblical characters may be dressed in traditional garb, but the robes are decorated with flowers and other tiny designs. In her second Nativity we see two Archangels, San Rafael, who holds a fish, and San Gabriel, with a trumpet in one hand and a sword in the other, watching over the traditional participants in the Nativity scene. Note that here, too, the Three Kings ride an elephant, a horse, and a camel and seem to be carrying containers that may hold gold, frankincense, and myrrh. (purchased from the artist, March, 1998)
Each of the nacimientos we have seen here is a distinctive, personal creation, clearly influenced by the artist’s surroundings and by the religious knowledge he/she has acquired. Jeanette Winters, on the dust jacket of a delightful children’s book about Josefina Aguilar, writes: “An artist works in her sunny patio in Mexico. She looks out at the world and makes what she sees from soft clay…” In an interview with Lois Wasserspring, author of Oaxacan Ceramics, Angélica Vázquez says, “We are surrounded by a lot of magic, in the birds and all of the animals. Everything exists for something. I love to capture the folklore in clay”.
Judith Davis is an “Amigo” and also vice president of Friends of the Creche, A Society Dedicated to the Christmas Nativity.
Barbash, Shepard. Oaxacan Woodcarving. The Magic in the Trees. Photography
by Vicki Ragan. (San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 1993)
Grandes Maestros del Arte Popular Mexicano.
(México: Fomento Cultural Banamex A.C., octubre 1998)
(México: Fundación Cultural Serfin, octubre 1994)
Nacimientos Mexicanos – Grandes Maestros del Arte Popular
(México: Fomento Cultural Banamex, A.C., no date, c. 2000)
Oaxacan Ceramics – Traditional Folk Art by Oaxacan Women.
Photographs by Vicki Ragan.
(San Francisco: Chronicle Books, 2000). p. 71.
Winter, Jeanette. Josefina.
(New York: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1996).