Lay Down His Sweet Head: Historic Christmas Mangers and Cribs

The Crib of the Infant Jesus

A 15th Century crib for an image of the Infant Jesus.

Since today is St. Nicholas’s Day and I would like to avoid thinking about Krampus (Krampi?) who accompany the Saint and resemble a Bigfoot airbrushed to look like a member of the band KISS, let us dwell, instead on the crib of the Infant Jesus and the upcoming holiday. Let me admit that I am a nativity enthusiast. Christmas is celebrated in this home by the display of a cast-of-thousands antique manger scene and several (well, dozens) smaller nativity scenes, none of which star Jesus as a zucchini or the Virgin as Princess Leia.

I have not read Pope Benedict’s new book on the Nativity in which he apparently debunks centuries of pious legend and tradition (No ox! No ass! No stable!) But some of the faithful believe that wood from the Christ Child’s cradle is preserved at the Church of Santa Maria Maggiore in Rome, along with a crowned statue of the swaddled Babe. The boards that supposedly formed the bottom of the manager were brought from the Holy Land to Rome after 642 and presented to Pope Theodore I.

Described in 1904 the relic “consists of five worn bars. These are of wood, worm eaten and gray, that looks as though it might be oak powdered with flour. The bars average about a yard in length, and the entire grating is suspended in a crystal case by silver ribbons.  This case is supported on carved gold and silver feet and its full length is a meter, its height half a meter. It is surmounted by a beautiful enameled statue of the infant Jesus.”

Around the 14th century, with the rise of what I would term pietism: an emotional response to the events of the gospel coupled with a penchant for imagining oneself inserted into  sacred scenes, came a cult of the Child Jesus. Statues of the Child, separate from His Mother, were popular, especially in convents, which could be hotbeds of religious emotion. Many nuns entered religious life very young–early medieval texts speak of children with their nurses living in monasteries. Some nuns had no real vocation for the religious life and poured frustrated longings into devotion to the Child. Others came to the convent as widows or discarded wives. Perhaps the cult of the Infant reminded them of their former lives.

Texts encouraged religious and laity to place themselves at the heart of the action; to imagine themselves as witnesses to the scenes of the Gospels. For example, this excerpt from Meditationes de Vita Christi by an anonymous Franciscan, writing for a Poor Clare. I would suggest that this was a devotion to be performed in connection with a Christmas creche.

 You also, kneel and adore your lord God, then his mother, and salute the holy and venerable Joseph respectfully. Then kiss the feet of the infant Jesus who is laid in his bed, and ask our Lady to give him to you, and allow you to pick him up. Receive him and hold him in your arms. Look at his face with attention and kiss it with respect, take joy in this with confidence…Then give him back to his mother and look how well she suckles him, cares for him, and serves him in all things with solicitude and wisdom. Thus, you also, keep yourself ready to help her if you can.

Some nuns apparently took the visualization a bit farther than we are comfortable with in this lax, post-Freud world:

Margaretha Ebner, a Dominican nun, owned a small wooden statue of the Christ Child, which she said woke her one night.

“I saw the child playing in its cradle…I lifted him with joy out of the crib and stood him in my lap. He was a dear child. Then I said, ‘Kiss me, so I will forget that you have disturbed me,’ Then he fell upon my neck and held and kissed me.’

She then nursed the Child back to sleep.

To support this personalized devotion, dolls representing the infant Jesus were made in wood, wax, and precious metals, along with accessory cradles/cribs.

The illustration above is one of my favorite examples of a crib for the Christ Child. It is from the Grand Béguinage of Louvain and dates from the fifteenth century. (Beguines were pious women who lived in convent-like settings and wore a religious habit. They performed  devotions and good works, but without formal religious vows. They were not a Caribbean dance.)

This crib is displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and is the first thing I go to visit whenever I am at the Museum. There is a wealth of detail: openwork tracery windows, the angels standing at the foot and head, the gaily colored paint, the Lamb of God embroidered in seed pearls on the pillow, and the bells (which are found on other cribs) either to divert His Infant Majesty or to sound upon the removal of the Jesus doll, as a reminder of the bells at the Elevation during the Mass.  The bed is made of carved and polychromed oak, copper gilt, silver gilt, tinsel, gold thread, translucent enamels, and pearls–nothing was too good for the Holy Child. Apparently there was a compartment for a relic below the bed, but I think that the relic has disappeared. The piece reminds me irresistibly of The Shrine of St. Ursula by Hans Memling.

If you did not have a Christ Child doll of your own, apparently there were itinerant Christ-bearers.  I am not a fan of the lachrymose Margery Kempe, but she tells of

 two Grey Friars and a woman who had come with them from Jerusalem, and she had with her an ass carrying a chest containing an image of our Lord….And the woman who had the doll in the chest, when they arrived in fine cities, took the doll out of the chest and laid it in the laps of respectable wives. [Does this sound like a fertility ritual to you? It does to me.] And they would dress it in shirts and kiss it as if it were God himself. And when the creature saw the worship and reverence which they bestowed on the doll, she was seized with sweet devotion and sweet meditations, so that she wept with great sobbing and loud crying. The Book of Margery Kempe: An Abridged Translation By Margery Kempe, Liz Herbert McAvoy

Saints Teresa of Avila, Rose of Lima, John of the Cross and Anthony of Padua are only a few of the saints who had visions of holding and playing with the Child Jesus. Teresa was particularly fond of the Holy Child, trotting his statue upon her knee on long journeys and dancing before his image with a tambourine. It is believed that St. Teresa’s personal image of the Christ Child was either the actual statue or the inspiration for the popular Infant of Prague devotional icon, brought to Prague by Dõna María Manrique de Lara y Mendoza on her marriage to a Bohemian nobleman. The statue was given to the Discalced Carmelites at Prague by Dõna Maria’s daughter, Princess Polyxena von Lobkowicz.

Another creche curiosity was the baking of a mince pie in the shape of the manger to hold a figure of the Child. The pie was then eaten on Christmas. I imagine the baby in the King Cake for the Feast of the Epiphany or for Mardi Gras echoes this practice.( It is repeated endlessly online that the Puritans banned these mince pies along with Christmas, but this is dubious and the phrase “idolatrie in crust,” which you see in reference to these mangers comes from an 1781 satirical poem by John Nichols.)

I understand that some cloistered Carmelites and Poor Clares still hold “days of recollection” where each nun receives the figure of the Child in turn and spends a day alone with it, meditating on the Infancy. You can still find large or even life-sized figures of the Infant Jesus in the manger in religious specialty stores, some with real glass eyes. (No, they do not open and shut. ) Neither did the eyes on the 1958 Ideal “The Most Wonderful Story” Baby Jesus Doll. Apparently the doll, who came packaged with a cardboard manger, seemed blasphemous to most parents, who couldn’t bear to see the Lord of Heaven and Earth bumped down the stairs by a jammy 2-year-old.  Each Ideal employee got one for Christmas and the rest were sent to a landfill in Providence, Rhode Island.  Holy ground….

Sources: Annette LeZotte “Cradling Power: Female Devotions and Early Netherlandish Jesueau” in Push Me, Pull You: Interaction, Physicality, and Devotional Practice in Late Medieval and Renaissance Art.

Jeffrey Chipps Smith, The Northern Renaissance  

Henk van Os, The Art of Devotion in the Late Middle Ages in Europe, 1300-1500


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