Rome: The First Nativity Scene Figures Are Displayed for Christmas

January 02, 2021

For those who are perplexed by the cylindrical figures of St. Peter's Square, which are supposed to represent the Holy Family, the figures from the first nativity scene  commissioned in the Middle Ages by a disciple of St. Francis of Assisi, are being exhibited in the one of the most venerable Roman basilicas.

We know that at the end of the 13th century, at the altar in the catacombs of the Basilica of Saint Mary Major, pilgrims could meditate in front of six marble statues sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio.

Since December 22, 2020, the faithful are able to visit five of the figures from the first nativity scene, on display during the time of Christmas in the Sistine Chapel of this Marian basilica, located to the right of the main altar.

These first known figures were commissioned in 1292 by Pope Nicholas IV, a Franciscan Pope, who was inspired by Saint Francis of Assisi, inventor of the first living Nativity Scene in Greccio, Italy, in 1223.

Sante Guido, art historian and professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, confirms the authenticity of the five statues on display.

This means, explains the historian that this manger was there when Cardinal Cajetan reported having seen an apparition of the Child Jesus in the Chapel of the Nativity, on Christmas night 1517, and when St. Ignatius of Loyola chose to offer his first Mass, in this same chapel, in 1538.

It is not known how many figures in total made up the ensemble commissioned by Nicholas IV: today there remains only the figures representing St. Joseph, the three wise men, and a composition representing the ox and the donkey.

The figures of the Virgin Mary and the Child Jesus have lost their original character after being restored in the 16th century.

“Here, we really have a representation of the creche according to St. Francis thinking,” explains Sante Guido, who specifies that this Nativity Scene is the first in history: “it is not only a representation of the creche, but it is the creche,” adds the academic.

The organic link of the Basilica of St. Mary Major with the Nativity of the Incarnate Word goes back well before the commission of the first Nativity Scene. The Liberian basilica is in fact proud to have an extraordinary relic of Christ’s cradle, sent from Bethlehem by St. Sophronius, then Patriarch of Jerusalem, to Pope Theodore I, in the 7th century.

For this reason, the Liberian Basilica was sometimes referred to as the “Bethlehem of the West.”