Spanish Nativity
The Spanish Nativity - Building Bethlehem



 A Spanish Nativity scene is called a Belén. This word means Bethlehem, since a Spanish Christmas scene includes the entire town of Bethlehem and what often looks like all of Judea. In addition to angels and shepherds and sheep, there are farmers with their plows, hunters with strings of game, washerwomen washing and bakers baking. There are caves and houses and temples, rocks and streams and mountains. Off in the distance, there are the Magi on their camels, and sometimes you will see the soldiers of Herod, ominously advancing with their swords drawn. All the while, children like small lambs dance through the scenes, bringing their offerings to the Child, the Niño, who sleeps in a straw-filled manger under the gaze of his adoring Mother and the vigilant St. Joseph. 


The tradition is a very old one. While St. Francis is usually credited with having created the first Nativity scene in Greccio, Italy in 1223, he himself was probably inspired by an earlier tradition of dramatizations of important Mysteries of the Faith. But St. Francis’ original modest Nativity scene underwent many changes, both in Italy and in Spain, to give us the extravaganza of art, culture and faith that can now be seen every Christmas throughout Spain and in Nueva España, the Spanish New World (which included Florida, the US Southwest and California in what is now the continental United States). 



 The Holy Family in a belén diorama in La Palma del Condado, seated in front of the Franciscan convent of La Rábida, from which Columbus sailed.

Spanish brings you this tradition. Learn its history and significance and how modern Spaniards have built on this heritage. See contemporary artisan producers of figures and read suggestions from Spanish collectors and builders of scenes. Get a glimpse of the towns where the figures are created, and see how Spain relives the wonderful moment when “the Word leapt down” and changed all human life forever. 

But start here for some basic concepts and terms.

Christianity is based on the Incarnation, meaning that the invisible God took flesh in the visible and human Jesus Christ. This was not only a statement about God, but something that has had an enormous artistic impact and has shaped the artistic vision of any country influenced by Christianity. 

An 18th century Latin American painting in the Cathedral of St. Augustine, Florida, of the Presentation of Jesus in the Jewish temple.

 Because of the association of images with the worship of idols or emperors practiced by the pagan Middle Eastern peoples and the Greeks and Romans in their popular religion, the Jewish people were very averse to figurative religious depictions.  Because Christianity is descended from God’s initial revelation to the Jews, this meant that in the earliest centuries of Christianity, there were conflicts over this issue. But because Christianity spread so rapidly throughout lands that had a long tradition of religious imagery – even if pagan – some figurative paintings or carvings began to appear in the very earliest centuries.  In some cases, earlier images were reinterpreted by Christian artists, just as pagan feasts were reinterpreted by the Church.  


6th Century mosaic in the Church of Sts Cosmas and Damian near the Roman Forum.

Christmas was one of the reinterpreted feasts.  It took several centuries for Christmas to be assigned a fixed date, but it was close to the winter solstice that had been celebrated not only by the Romans but by other pagan peoples and had a deep resonance in human life, since it was the point at which the darkest day occurred and then the days got longer. Thus it was an appropriate Christian liturgical reconfiguration of an ancient nature feast, transforming it from the return of the Sun and the new lengthening of the days to a reminder every year of the transformation of the natural world into a spiritual world based on the God who was also the True, the Good and the Beautiful.

This is the basis of the Spanish Nativity tradition.  In the next few pages, we’ll look at Spain and its particular artistic and spiritual milieu both at the origin and in the extension of this tradition. 

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Elizabeth Duran Gessner
Member, Asociaciรณn de Belenistas de Madrid
Member, Friends of the Creche
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