Spanish Nativity
History and Art

Development of the Nativity Scene

The modern Spanish Nativity scene is based on ancient Christian iconography,  medieval  theological symbolism, Renaissance artistic values, and 19th century historical research. Spanish Nativity scenes also reflect the meeting between 18th century Italian art and the sculptural forms of Spain’s 16th-17th century Golden Age .   These, in turn, often merged with folk and artisan styles.


Early art left by Christians in the form of mural painting in the Catacombs and carvings on sarcophagi often show the Virgin and Child.  Other figures appeared fairly early on, however, including the shepherds and the Kings.  Christmas and Epiphany were celebrated as the same feast. 

The date for Christmas was established in the West in the year 345 A.D., and Christmas iconography began to develop more abundantly. Some of the figures and episodes were based on the  Apocryphal Gospels, that is, Gospel accounts that were not regarded as authentic by the Church and thus were not accepted into the canon, but were very popular among the people. They were generally somewhat embroidered accounts that answered questions like, “What were the names of the Kings?”  People like to have the details on stories about important events, and they felt that the canonical Gospel accounts didn’t tell them enough.

Theologians such as St Augustine and others of the Church fathers often preached on these accounts, and they interpreted them in a very symbolic way. During the Middle Ages, art and drama depicted all of the players in the story as symbolic figures: the Three Kings represented the three races of man known to people at that time (African, Asian and European), for example. 

16th century figure from Quito at Las Carboneras, Madrid

The events of the Faith were often shown in Mystery and Miracle Plays, performed in the churches. These soon took on a life of their own and eventually Church authorities suppressed them, since people were coming to church to see the play rather than the Mass, and in addition, some of the plays had become very secular and even somewhat risqué or political.

St. Francis was very devoted to the Nativity and got special permission from Pope X in 1223 to do a dramatization of the Nativity, probably using people from the village to play some roles, and representing the Virgin and Child with statues from the church.  This sparked the interest in plastic (sculptural) expressions of the Nativity story, and every where that St. Francis or the Franciscan religious orders  went (particularly the women’s order, the Daughters of St. Clare or clarisas), the Nativity Scene custom was implanted.

Statue of St Francis, patron saint of belenistas, in La Palma del Condado.

St. Francis lived just at the earliest dawn of the Renaissance.  Over the next couple of hundred years, art because less symbolic and more personal, realistic and expressive.  This affected depictions of the Nativity, too, and resulted in some of the most beautiful paintings and sculptural work produced by European artists.

San Jose and Nino in a church in SevillaSpain was particularly well known for its religious painting and statuary, and the Nativity was a frequent subject. St. Joseph also became very popular in Spanish art and devotion at this time, when Baroque art achieved its true splendor.

Scenes from daily life had always featured in Renaissance paintings, but artists developed a special interest in this towards the end of the period, and by the late 17th and 18th centuries, it had become a speciality in its own right.  Italian sculptors saw Nativity scenes as an occasion to display their expertise in creating realistic figures.  The famous Inn Scene in Neapolitan Nativities is an example of this, with the artists depicting everything from the town drunk to the dogs under the table.  Portraying exotically dressed characters was also popular, as we see in this Neapolitan Nativity with its typical column of angels. This had an enormous influence on the Spanish Nativity scene.

19th Century Neapolitan Nativity Scene




Naples had been controlled by Spain for centuries, and when Carlos VII of Naples, a member of the Spanish royal house, inherited the Spanish throne and became Carlos III of Spain in 1759, he brought Neapolitan artists and styles with him to Madrid.  He commissioned Nativity scenes and, since everybody wants to be like the King, all the local dukes and princes and marquesses commissioned scenes, too. 

Holy Family attributed to Salzillo at the Cathedral of LeonThe Duke of Riquelme, in Murcia, commissioned a scene from  a man named Francisco Salzillo, who was the son of a Spanish woman and a Neapolitan sculptor brought to Spain by the king. Franciso Salzillo learned his trade in his father’s workshop, and in the late 18th century, produced the 450 piece Nativity Scene that still forms the basic artistic imagery for Spanish Nativity scenes.  The Holy Family above, in the Cathedral of Leon, is attributed to Salzillo and shows you his skill and artistic vision. 

The famous Salzillo scenes are  are based on the Gospel accounts , featuring rural daily life scenes combined with a regally dressed Holy Family.  This late 18th or early 19th century scene from Murcia, below, is typical of a  scene influenced by Salzillo's Nativity.


However, there was yet another change ahead for the Spanish scene. In the 19th century, the rise of science and scientific approaches to history, particularly archeology, led to interest in the historical accuracy of Biblical accounts.  An attempt was made to determine how people really lived, dressed and acted in the times of Jesus.  At a popular level, this was reflected in illustrated Bibles, particularly in English speaking countries, that featured artists’ visions of historically accurate scenes.


 These works were translated and became very popular in Spain, particularly in the area around Barcelona.  Naturally, this imagery spread to Nativity scenes, and the belén hebreo (Jewish-style Nativity Scene) was born.  The Holy Family and all the other characters were shown as typical inhabitants of a 1st century Judean village, and artists enjoyed creating other typical figures, such as Roman soldiers.

Soldier by a 20th century Catalan figuristaThe belén hebreo style became popular in everything from the paper Nativity scenes often published by newspapers to the more elaborate sets of figures bought by churches.   The style spread throughout Spain, with Olot and Murcia being the centers best known for production of this type of figure.

Most modern Nativity figures still attempt to achieve “Biblical” realism, with the exception of the more traditional, regal looking figures produced by some sculptors in Andalucía and those highly individualistic figures created by artists, such as this rather whimsical scene by the Mallorcan artist Llorenc Gelabert, featuring figures in traditional Mallorcan peasant dress.

















Wonderful Websites and Great Books:

Christian Iconography.  A huge and detailed site created br Dr. J.R. Stracke, a professor at Augusta State University, Georgia.
Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History.  This is a great collection of essays on art history maintained by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. This page is on Iberian 17th and 18th century art.

Spanish Nativity

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