Do You See What I See? Imagery in Nativity Scenes

Hand tinted postcard of girl with crèche figures, circa 1910. Photographer: Professeur Stebbing, Paris, France. Publisher: Étoile, Paris. Collection of Ed Gyllenhaal.


The art collections at Glencairn Museum, Bryn Athyn, Pennsylvania, contain many examples of depictions of the Nativity and infancy of Jesus Christ, including paintings, illuminated manuscripts, sculptures, and stained glass windows. Many of these works date to the Medieval period, although a few were created as recently as the last century, including a large three-dimensional Nativity scene produced in Bryn Athyn in the 1920s.

Glencairn Museum’s annual World Nativities exhibition presents dozens of three-dimensional Nativity scenes collected from around the world. For many Christians the Nativity scene is a meaningful expression of religious faith, providing a compelling visual focus during the Christmas season. World Nativities shows how artisans adapt the Nativity scene to represent their own spiritual, intellectual, cultural, and regional environments. Each year the exhibition features Nativities borrowed from other museums and from Glencairn’s growing collection. 

This Web resource is intended to provide visitors to the exhibition with additional cultural, historical, and art historical information. Although Nativity scenes can be enjoyed on purely aesthetic and spiritual grounds, we believe that to fully appreciate a Nativity it is necessary to understand the origins of the imagery and the context in which it was created.

A Nativity scene is commonly called a crèche, an old French word meaning manger or crib. Some other words used to describe a Nativity scene include krippe (Germany), szopka (Poland), presepio (Italy), and nacimiento (Latin America and the Southwestern United States). While art historians usually designate three-dimensional Nativities as “craft,” sometimes they have been recognized as “fine art,” such as the 18th century Neapolitan presepio exhibited annually beneath the Christmas tree at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. According to the museum’s website, each one of these Neapolitan crèche figures is “a work of art” in itself.

Corn-husk Nativity. Bratislava, Slovakia, 2009. This Nativity, designed by Peter Palka using a traditional Slovak form of folk art, is based on the one that took first place in the 1994 International Crèche Festival in Bellingham, Washington State, USA. It is made of corn husk, a material used by folk artists in Slovakia to make Christmas and Easter scenes, as well as scenes representing the traditional way of life in rural Slovak villages. Collection of Glencairn Museum.

The artistic representation of the Christmas story that is expressed in a crèche is usually the result of a combination of images inspired by several different biblical texts, together with additional information from apocryphal texts produced by early Christian writers. In addition to these textual sources (some of which may have originated in oral traditions), nearly two thousand years of artistic innovation has contributed much to the development of the imagery found in contemporary Nativity scenes. In addition to the images common to most scenes, such as the Holy Family, manger, star of Bethlehem, shepherds, and wise men, artisans frequently add elements of their own. Three-dimensional Nativity scenes often feature regionally distinctive structures, clothing, vegetation, and animals. Depending on the geographical location, the customary ox and ass at the manger may be replaced by a water buffalo, a zebra, or a llama. Nativities are often crafted from whatever materials are available locally, such as clay, grass, corn husks, sticks, bark, gourds, and even coconuts.