Italy: The “Mother of all Cribs” at Saint Mary Major

Source: FSSPX News


The most ancient representation of the Holy Family was once again on display in the basilica of Saint Mary Major in Rome, on December 23. For the past six months, the alabaster figures of Mary, Joseph, the Infant Jesus, the three Kings, the ox and the ass have undergone restoration. This work was commissioned by Pope Nicholas IV (1288-1292), the first Franciscan to occupy the See of Peter. He thus followed his master, Saint Francis of Assisi, who was the first, in 1223, to have the Nativity enacted, inaugurating the tradition of the Nativity Play.

 The Basilica of Saint Mary Major holds five small pieces of wood from the manger in which the Child Jesus was laid; which was a good enough reason, in the opinion of the Franciscan pope, to have the Crib on display throughout the year.

 The artist, Arnolfo di Cambio, sculpted these half meter high figures between 1290 and 1292, within a very much larger group, which today has disappeared. Joseph is leaning on a staff, and is looking towards Jesus at the centre of the group. The child, sitting on Mary’s lap appears to be about a year old. One of the Kings from the East is kneeling before Mary and Jesus. Two others, dressed in splendid robes, their hands full of gifts, appear to be on their way to Bethlehem. They are turned to one another as if engaged in an animated discussion, while the ass and the ox are gazing at the Holy Family.