“... Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the place where travelers lodged.”
The Nativity became a favorite subject in Christian art by the 14th century. One of the reasons for this fascination with the scene was the devotion practiced by St Francis of Assisi. Around 1220 he celebrated Christmas by setting up the first presepio or crèche in the town of Greccio near Assisi. He used real animals to create a living scene so that the worshippers could contemplate the birth of the child Jesus in a direct way, making use of the senses, especially sight.
As a child my parents took me to see the elaborately, garnished 20' blue spruce at the Metropolitan Museum of Art that is surounded by a Baroque creche. It is dramatically displayed in the midst of the medieval sculpture hall. Today in my hometown of Pittsburgh, PA I enjoy carrying on the tradition of marveling at the presepio with my children at the Carnegie Art Museum. I particularly enjoy the fact that this elaborate, Neopolitan masterpiece is surounded by many large live evergreen trees decorated with handmade ornaments from different groups in the community. The old and very classic figures of the presepio are enveloped by contemporary art from professional artists, hobbyists and children...it is artistically the best of both worlds!
St. Francis was certainly savvy when he realized that worshippers would benefit from using their senses to better connect with the message. Today we carry on the the tradition with elaborate presepios but the message can be accentuated in simple ways. The light of candles (Christ was the light of the world), the use of the colors white and gold (purity and royalty), or congregants adding pieces of straw to a manger to help prepare the way can be just as powerful.