Spanish Nativity
Materials and Makers

How Are They Made?

Nativity figures were originally made of terracotta, wood, wood pulp, clay, cloth and straw, and even paper mache and cardboard.  Today, most of them are made of terracotta, although new materials such as plastics and resins are increasingly used. Regardless of their material, the Nativity figures are produced in small, usually family-run workshops in Murcia, Olot and scattered other parts of Spain, including Madrid.

Nativity in the reredos of the Cathedral of Sevilla

The earliest Spanish figures were generally made from wood, wood paste or terracotta, and were usually polychromed. This simply means that they were painted with many colors. Usually, they were first coated with a layer of gesso, a glue-based mixture of powdered minerals somewhat like a fine plaster, to provide a smooth surface, and then were painted with colored paint or gold leaf. Sometimes they were painted with layers of color and gold, after which a design – such as the pattern on a garment – was scratched through the layers.  The statues were often finished with a glaze and parts of them were sometimes gilded.

Many of the early figures were made of wax onInfant of Prague at the Cathedral of St Augustine, Fl a wooden armature and were dressed in elaborate clothing. The famous statue of the Infant of Prague is actually a very early Spanish wax figure of the Holy Child that found its way to Prague when a Spanish noblewoman married a Czech prince.  Figures such as this, called figuras de vestir, were meant for dressing and did not have full bodies.

This technique was also used by Neapolitan Nativity figure makers, who created the hands and heads of their figures out of terracotta or other materials, but made the b19th Century Neapolitan figures in museum.odies out of wire armatures wrapped with straw to provide bulk.  Once the figures were dressed, nobody could tell how they were actually made.

Salzillo’s famous figures were made of wood or clay, and also include some made with paper and wood paste. Modern figures are made of wood, plaster, terracotta - sometimes draped with stiffened cloth – plastic and resins.  Higher quality resins are mixed with powdered marble dust to give them weight and a better surface.  They are beautifully finished, such as these figures by Montserrat Ribes.



Resins and plastics are becoming more popular, but until recently, the most common material for the average figure, the type that you might buy in the feria de Navidad, was terracotta.

Ignacio Fernandez of Creaciones Tula looks over a table of his terracotta figures.The terra-cotta figures are usually cast in molds, although sculptors also carve figures from clay. These figures are known as al palillo, meaning that they are made individually using the sculpting tool, and are generally more expensive than the cast figures.

After the figures are cast, they are removed from the molds and allowed to dry slightly. Artisans work on them to remove any odd bumps and dings left over from the casting process, and also add details to them. Small details, such as the hands of a human figure or the ears of a donkey, are made individually and attached before the figure is fired. 
 Figures at the workshop of Antonio Galan, Murcia
After firing, the figures are usually bathed in a solution of glue to seal their surfaces for painting.

In Murcia, some figures are also draped in real cloth. Figures that are going to be enteladas, that is, draped in cloth, are wrapped in the cloth and dipped in the glue solution. The cloth is pinched into place to produce folds and creases, and when the glue solution dries, the cloth is solid and has a paintable surface.
The figures are then individually painted by artists who spend their days surrounded by squadrons of the little figures, working through a batch of oxen one day, a batch of shepherds the next, and so forth.

Some modern figures are animated, and are designed to be wired after they are painted, so that their arms or other parts will move. Modern Belén figures are to be seen busily sweeping floors, kneading bread, or even shoeing horses!

Finally, they are sold either to religious goods stores for resale during the Christmas season, or are taken by the manufacturers themselves to be sold directly at Christmas markets throughout Spain.

The pictures that you see here were taken at the workshop of Antonio Galán in the town of Puente Tocinos, Murcia. Antonio has taken over the family business that was started by his grandfather in 1936, and supervises a busy staff of painters and ceramic artists.  Puente Tocinos is a town famous for its Nativity figure industry, and Antonio and the other figuristas ship thousands of figures every year to Christmas ferias and shops all over Spain.  Daily life figures such as the one below, a melon seller, are typical of Murcia and popular with belenistas all over Spain.

Melon Seller - Detail from a Murcia belen






Wonderful Websites and Great Books:
 Creaciones Tula - The workshop of Ignacio Fernandez and his wife, Ana, in Pamplona.  A fine line of cast figures and figures produced al palillo.
Montserrat Ribes - A fine artist who creates distinctive and lyrical figures in resin. Her workshop is located near Barcelona.
Dimosa Dimosa is an old company that manufactures Belén figures and religious statuary in Olot. There are interesting pictures of the factory and their process.
El Arte Cristiano This is a company in Olot that makes figures for belenes. Their website has a slide show of the production process.

Spanish Nativity

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