Ferenc Veress
Following the Star
Abstract This study discusses the origin, and liturgical function, of a popular accessory of the Christmas celebrations, that is, the Bethlehem nativity scene. The events of the life of Jesus attracted much attention in the early period of Christianity, as a result of which the Holy Land was visited by flocks of pilgrims. Descriptions of the sentiments aroused by a pilgrimage to Bethlehem may be found in sources as early as the letters of Saint Jerome. Fragments of the Bethlehem manger were kept in the Santa Maria Maggiore Cathedral in Rome, so it is here that one of the first nativity scenes, a sculptural group by Arnolfo di Cambio, can be found (late 13th century). The work of Arnolfo was commissioned by the same Pope Nicholas IV who also sponsored the ornamentation of the Cathedral of San Rufino. One screen of the Giotto Assisi fresco cycle depicts Saint Francis’ Miracle of Greccio, in which the Holy Mass is celebrated over the manger and the Child comes to life. The Bethlehem nativity scene was the subject of numerous paintings and sculptures during the Renaissance and the Baroque era. From the sacrificial procession of the faithful in the liturgy evolved the genre of sacral drama, from which in turn mystery plays were developed, leaving the premises of the church. Nativity scenes incorporating elements of mystery plays, such as the presence of the shepherds, were intended primarily to make the miracle of embodiment a palpable reality for the believers. The presence of the Holy Family, the three Magi and the shepherds made the nativity scene realistic, always with a touch of the day and age. A tabernacle cabinet carried by angels was erected in 1589 over the Chapel of the Nativity in the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica; commissioned, again, by a Franciscan Pope, Sixtus V. Caravaggio’s Adoration of the Shepherds altar paintings (the Museo Nazionale, Messina, and the San Lorenzo church, Palermo), represented a novel interpretation of the subject. In sculpture, Antonio Begarelli’s terracotta groups (1526-1527, Modena Cathedral), which resemble paintings, preceded baroque art. The nativity scene, as a genre in sculpture, started to flourish again in Hungary in the 17th century, a symbolic representative of which was the medieval Adoration of the Shepherds sculptural group found by Jesuits in the Town Hall of Lőcse (today Levoča, in Slovakia), a work executed by the master Pál Lőcsei (today in the Basilica of Saint James, Levoča). Three Magi altars are to be found in the churches of Saint Michael in both Sopron and Kolozsvár (today Cluj-Napoca, in Romania), which presumably must have had their medieval antecedents. While the Adoration of the Three Magi sculptural group is a work of an immigrant Bavarian sculptor, Georg Schweitzer, in Sopron, it was Franz Anton Maulbertsch who painted a Three Magi altar screen in Kolozsvár (Cluj-Napoca). Maulbertsch also developed the theme of the Three Magi and the Adoration of the Shepherds in two separate fresco scenes in the parish church of Sümeg, deliberately associating with the great tradition leading to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem, via the Santa Maria Maggiore Basilica in Rome. Key words: Bethlehem, manger, nativity scene, Wise Men from the East 10.56044/UA.2021.1.4.eng FULL TEXT PFD