Mythologies and symbolisms in the Neapolitan crib

The meanings of the Neapolitan crib between mythologies and symbolisms

The Neapolitan crib can have various origins:

MYTHOLOGICAL ORIGIN: The nativity scene is in fact the result of myths and rituals which have been lost
SYMBOLIC ORIGINS: In the various Neapolitan cribs there are transcultural meanings and values in a symbolic and algebraic form.
TRADITIONAL ORIGINS: The nativity scenes are characterized by themes and motifs of popular imagination.

The Neapolitan cribs are complex and varied, with different shapes and intertwining between nature and myth.

The combination of reality and fantasy, used in the Naples of the time, gives life to unnatural representations and without measure and rules.

Neapolitan nativity scene

THE NATIVITY: On December 25, according to the Julian calendar, it was the date of the winter solstice, a date that sanctioned the birth of the sun.

On this day the power of the sun increased and the days began to last longer, in Syria and Egypt the nativity was strongly celebrated.

The commemoration workers went to the sanctuaries and, after midnight, they went out shouting “The Virgin Mary gave birth”.

The Egyptians depicted the newborn sun with the image of a newborn, the Virgin who on December 25th gave birth to the Divine child, was the supreme eastern goddess, whom the Semites called the Celestial Virgin, also the birth of Mithras, who represented the sun, it was December 25th.

Many mythologies referred to the Divinity of the sun, the sun was considered the hero who defeated darkness and descended into the realm of the dead as a winner, the sun is identified in all the gods of the Greek-Eastern world, from Apollo to Jupiter to Orus and Adonis.

In ancient times the Birth of the Savior was celebrated by the Church on January 6, only later the date was brought forward to December 25, the Church Fathers used to celebrate Christmas by lighting fires, Sant Agostino subsequently invites the faithful to detach themselves from this custom and to consider the December 25 as the day of the miraculous birth as opposed to nature, which at this time of year falls asleep and is invaded by cold and darkness, which are destroyed by the birth of a humble child, The child considered the sun that defeats darkness.

The cave in the Neapolitan crib


Located in the center and accented by other smaller caves, located near flocks, barnyard animals and piles of straw, usually the crib has a spiral structure that symbolizes life and rebirth, the cave takes on the value of border between light and darkness and is almost always placed at the highest point.

The cave also represents the entrance to the Underworld, in fact the access door to Hades is represented by a cave.

The well in the Neapolitan crib


It represents the point of union between the Earth and the underground waters, the well is associated with the Madonna, in Campania there are several Madonnas entitled Madonna del Pozzo.

Many were the popular beliefs related to the well on December 25th; some claimed that on that night the waters reflected the faces of those who died in that year, others believed that the waters contained diabolical spirits.

It is said that when midnight Christmas is celebrated, on the wells of the well, there is a duck that scares those who have the misfortune to look at it.

The fountain in the Neapolitan crib


it has a magical value representing the waters that come from underground, the fountain is a place of love encounters and fantastic visions.

The woman at the fountain is associated with the Madonna who would have received the news of the birth of Jesus while drawing from a fountain.

The bridge in the Neapolitan crib


also linked to magic, it represents the passage, some fables tell of bridges built in the night by devils, or children killed and thrown into the foundations of a bridge to support it, it represents the meeting place between the living and the dead and is a place of frightening night encounters.

During the Christmas period it was told of apparitions of werewolves, of nuns with the severed head of lovers, of hanged men and of executed ones.

In grottaglie and in Naples during the Epiphany near the mountains are depicted 12 figures of bare brothers with the thumb of the burning left hand depicting the 12 days of the Christmas period or the dead months.

The mill in the Neapolitan crib


sign of the wheels or shovels that rotate as a representation of time, alluding to the new year, the mill is also seen as a millstone that crushes the grain to produce the flour, the latter is associated with death, thus attributing a negative acceptance, but there is also a positive one, the flour is also associated with the indispensable bread food for human subtraction.

Bread has intrinsic religious value because Jesus represents the Bread of Life.

Osteria in the Neapolitan crib


Establishing the value of this element is extremely complex.

For the itinerant, the inn represented an obligatory stop to take refuge and rest, some beliefs tell of wicked hoteliers who poison or kill travelers during sleep. A Neapolitan legend tells of three children killed by a host on Christmas Eve and passed off as tuna fillets, after having arrived at the San Nicola bureau after the bend of the three bodies managed to make them resurrect.

The three kings in the Neapolitan crib:

The Magi are the illustrious of the crib and are represented on their respective black and white red horses. The three colors of the horses in the fairy tales of Campania represent the phases of the black-night, red-midday, white-aurora day. magi represents that of the stars which ends at the birthplace of the Child Jesus.

The washerwoman in the Neapolitan crib

The laundress represented the witness of the virginal birth of Mary, according to some Gospels many midwives visited the Virgin, but only one wanted to make sure of her virginity by touching it, this hand was incinerated immediately after healing only after touching Jesus baby. In the cribs there are several washerwomen who, after washing the Child, spread the white clothes that symbolize Mary’s virginity.

The gypsy in the Neapolitan crib

The gypsy symbolizes the prophecy, it tells of a gypsy who had foretold the birth of Jesus deceiving herself that she was the Chosen One of God, but her sin of presumption made her become an owl.

The gypsy with the child in her arms can represent Mary’s flight into Egypt.

It is told of a Virgin woman who, despite her ban on visiting Our Lady because she was not married, managed to deceive everyone by wrapping a stone in a cloth, so as to pretend a newborn. Once in the cave the stone miraculously began to sneeze and became a child, St. Stephen celebrated December 26th.

The gypsy without a child presages instead a dramatic event or that of the Passion of Christ.

The fisherman in the Neapolitan crib
The Neapolitan crib hunter

The fisherman and the hunter:

fishing and hunting represent the two activities of excellence for human support. The representations of hunters and fishermen are linked to the death-life cycle, day-night, summer-winter.

Their location within the crib links us to the duality of the celestial and infernal worlds, the fisherman at the bottom connected to the underworld, the cacciaotre at the top to represent the celestial world.

Crafts in the crib
Vendors in the crib:

These characters represent the personifications of the months:

January butcher or butcher;
February ricotta and cheese seller;
March pollivendolo and bird seller;
April egg seller;
May represented by a married couple carrying a basket of cherries and fruit;
June baker or farinaro;
July tomato seller;
August watermelon seller;
September fig seller or sower;
October, vintner or hunter;
November seller of chestnuts;
December fishmonger or fisherman
Card players in the Neapolitan crib

Their denomination is linked to the Carnival, usually the two “Compari” are nicknamed San Giovanni referring to the two solstices 24 December, 24 June.

BENINO: it is the shepherd boy represented while sleeping, he is placed high in the crib and represents the path to the cave.

According to this representation, the meaning of Christmas can be understood only through the dream carried out with the guidance of a visionary soul that sinks into the inner world of knowledge. At the end of the dream journey at the cave, fears leave room for the Wonder.

The ox and the donkey in the Neapolitan crib

The stories of the birth of Jesus were added to the Gospels belatedly, to facilitate conversions to Christianity in the pagan populations of the Roman Empire, accustomed for centuries to the myth of the “demigod” son of a god and a virgin.

In ancient myths, there are numerous examples of virgin mothers giving birth to divine beings:

Devaki, mother of Krishna;
Ceres, mother of Osiris;
Maia, mother of Sakia;
Celestina, mother of Zunis;
Chimalman, mother of Quexalcote;
Minerva, mother of the Greek Bacchus;
Semele, mother of the Egyptian Bacchus;
Nana, mother of Attis;
Alcmene, mother of Heracles (Hercules);
Shing-Mon, mother of Yu;
Isis, mother of Horus

In the so-called “canonical” gospels, only in Matthew and Luke we find this kind of stories.

While in Matthew we speak of “esoteric omens” (the Magi, the Star) and “Baby Jesus” is placed in a simple “house” (not in a stable and even less in a cave), in Luca instead the setting is very more scenic:

the manger, the shepherds, the angels, etc.

We note another difference: the story of MATTEO is full of quotations (also forced) from the old testament, while in LUCA no prophet is mentioned.

This happens because Matteo is dedicated to mainly JEWISH readers, while LUCA is tailor-made for an audience of so-called pagans.

This explains the theme of STALLA and MANGIATOIA, as pagan myths are often associated with ANIMALS.

That in the stable mentioned by LUCA there were a donkey and an ox, is instead a very later legend, and is reported in the “apocryphal” Gospel called “PSEUDO-MATTEO”.

The apocryphal PSEUDO-MATTEO is very late, the dating is not certain, but certainly prior to the 9th century. So when this apocryphal is written, Christianity is now entirely PAYED, ROMANIZED, and profoundly ANTI-SEMITA.

That’s why the PSEUDO-MATTEO, copying from LUCA places the birth in a stable, but ADD an ox and a donkey to IRONIZE on the so-called “incredulità “of the Jewish people who did not want to” recognize “Jesus.

The irony is given by an implicit reference to the prophet Isaiah, who wrote:

The ox knows his owner,
and the ass his master’s crib,
but Israel has no knowledge,
my people have no discernment
Isaiah 1: 3

Therefore, the ox and the donkey of the cribs, beyond their innocently indifferent appearance, are the symbol of the Christian prejudice against the Jewish people, unjustly considered “without discernment” for not having “recognized” the presumed “divinity” of the rabbi Jesus.

“O ‘Presebbio” the tradition of Naples

The Neapolitan crib, “o ‘Presebbio”, is one of the most intense symbols of the Christmas tradition in Naples (and not only in Naples).

The design phase:

Beyond religious devotion, it is also loved by those families that are not very observant or admittedly secular, perhaps because it reflects the spirit of the city, where sacred and profane, spirituality and daily life, prayer and irony coexist without contradictions.

The construction of the Neapolitan crib traditionally begins on December 8th:

from the storeroom the “base” of the previous year is pulled out (an architectural structure of cork and cardboard resting on a wooden board, without statuettes) and, with the whole family, from grandparents to grandchildren, the possible discussion is discussed extension of the crib.

San Gregorio Armeno:

After the planning of the interventions … the time comes for the walk to San Gregorio Armeno!
Famous throughout the world, the street is populated by dozens of shops and colorful stalls, where the crib craftsmen exhibit their creations.
You can really find everything: from cork or cardboard houses in various sizes, to “mechanical” electricity objects like mills, waterfalls or fountains, from the hand-painted terracotta shepherd statuettes to the 30 cm tall ones with fabric dresses sewn to measure.

Do not miss the “crafts”: the greengrocer, the baker, the butcher, the aquaiola, the pizza maker who fires pizza (moving the arm), and of course the Holy Family is not lacking in all dimensions, invoices and prices.

Any object purchased here may become the annual extension of its crib-stage.

The VIP pastors:

As is known, in addition to traditional depictions, the artisans of San Gregorio also produce shepherds with the features of contemporary personalities who – in one way or another – stood out during the year: from footballers to politicians, from movie stars to the protagonists of the gossip, every year the wait is created to discover who this time will be targeted by the “pastorai”!

Once you have purchased “the annual enlargement”, you proceed with the creation of the crib, which can last from a few days to the entire pre-Christmas period, but on the evening of the 24th, before setting off for the dinner, everything must be ready , except of course the baby boy in the manger, which will be added exactly at midnight.

Happy Nativity and Merry Christmas!

The “theater” of the Nativity: the Neapolitan crib

The Neapolitan nativity scene, perhaps the most famous local interpretation of the Nativity, traditionally sets the Sacred Representation in eighteenth-century Naples, interpreting it in a highly theatrical sense, with very vivid, colorful and warm-filled visual solutions.

Dwarfs and drunks beside the Child

The tendency to mix the sacred with the profane, delineatasi at the end of the seventeenth century, is the basis of this style choice, which introduces into the crib statuettes of people of the people such as dwarves, women with goiters, beggars, drunks, the hosts, the cobblers …
In short, the representation of the daily life of the streets and alleys of the city strongly enters the Sacred Representation, showing the humble and the derelict, whom Jesus loved more than any other and among whom he was born.

From churches to noble houses

As a next step, during the eighteenth century the Neapolitan crib progressively left the churches, where it was the object of devotion as if it were a relic, to “laicize”, entering the homes of the aristocracy.
The nobles compete to set up increasingly complex scenographic plants. Giuseppe Sanmartino, perhaps the greatest Neapolitan sculptor of the eighteenth century, skilled at molding terracotta figures, starts a real school of artists of the crib.

A nativity scene made up of shops

The scene moves progressively outside the group of the Holy Family, the representations of the shops spread with fresh meats, the breads and the baskets of fruit and vegetables, the scenographies become luxurious and detailed, they are structured on several levels and they see the addition of architectural details inspired by Greek and Roman temples, to underline the triumph of Christianity over paganism.

The nativity scene of the palace of Caserta

One of the most precious examples of Neapolitan crib is given by the manufacture

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