Spain in the New World
The Spanish Belén tradition was brought to the New World with the arrival of the first Spaniards, and Spanish and native artists on the American continent were producing figures for Belenes by the 16th century. Some of the figures made their way back to the Old World, and can be seen in convents and museums throughout Spain.
The Spanish wanted to impress the Indian peoples with what was best in Spanish culture, and missionaries brought art and music with them. Some of the California Missions were famous for their choirs that sang European works and works composed by the monks in 8 part harmony. And the Spanish set up workshops, training native craftsmen in European techniques and learning to use native materials themselves.
Many Latin American countries, including Mexico, have kept the elaborate Spanish Belén tradition alive. But for most people in the United States, Latin American Nativities bring to mind simple terra cotta figures, done in a folk-art or naïf style and reflecting the lives of the indigenous populations of Latin America. This is the style that has taken over the export market, although in their home countries, Latin American Nacimientos are as lavish and artistically produced as they are in Spain. Latin American figures were often used by the California Missions, such as this set at Mission Carmel from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico.
The Spanish tradition in the U.S. faded as Spanish settlers were replaced by groups from Northern Europe, but it has also been undergoing a revival here. There are some contemporary Americans who are devoted to the Spanish Belén tradition and build Spanish-style Belenes with figures from Spain itself.
Let's meet some of them.
On the West Coast, we have the extremely active and enthusiastic belenista Benito Santivanez, of Sunnyvale, California. Benito and his mother Mary have been setting up Belenes in local churches and public spaces for several years. They have about 200 figures, mostly from Olot, although figures from other areas are scattered through them. They begin their Belén in November and it takes them about a week to set it up, sometimes with help from parishioners and sometimes laboring alone. The area of their Belén is about 10 x 20 feet. This year, Benito said that they are planning to put up the Belén only in their parish church, since it is getting more difficult to find public spaces willing to have a religious display.
In the northern Midwest, we have José M. Herrero, who lives in Lincoln, Nebraska and constructs his belén in his parish church.
In the South, Orlando Cuadra is an artist who lives in Florida and builds a large belén in his home every year. It is about 4’by 6’, and he has about 30 figures. They are mostly 30 cm (12”) high, so it is a large and impressive Belén. Orlando spends a lot of time considering the design and the theological message, and is working this year on getting the lighting just right. He makes the complementos – that is, the accessories – himself. He inherited his love of belenismo from his father, who was from Colombia and who built a Belén every year. Orlando has figures from Spain, mostly from Olot, and tries to add one or two more every year.
Also in the South, Celia Campos has written articles about belenismo and is a member of the Friends of the Creche, an organization devoted to Nativity scenes of any and all national traditions. Cecilia lives in Atlanta and has brought the Spanish Nativity tradition to Georgia. She also sets up scenes of the Passion at Easter. Her figures are from Spain and include figures by José Luis Mayo, the famous Madrid figure artist. Most of Cecilia’s figures are in the 17-21 cm (7-9”) range. The scenes pictured here show the intricate detail and artistic composition that go into Cecilia Campos’ Belén. Notice the beautiful arrangement of the sheep trailing down behind their shepherd – and the sneaky little caganer “hidden” in the bushes!
Brother Robert Sokolowski, SM is a Marist brother and is attached to the Cathedral of Savannah. He has set up a Belén every year for many years, assisted by members of the Cathedral parish and staff. He first became interested in the tradition during a stay in Rome, and since has collected many figures of all different kinds and sizes and from many different countries. His largest figure is about 30 inches high, and he has also has a collection of about 30 angels, ranging from large ones to tiny ones that he arranges to give a feeling of distance. He points out that the Gospel account didn't mention just one angel, but a choir of angels singing their Gloria.
Brother Robert usually begins his Belén a couple of weeks before Christmas and finishes on the 23rd. It is normally constructed in the Chapel of the Blessed Virgin Mary at the Cathedral, and he uses the old Gothic altar as part of the “Sacro Monte,” the Holy Mountain that is a feature of many Belenes. Brother Robert’s Belén is a well-known feature of Savannah at Christmas, and he is hoping that many people will pitch in to set it up this year. If live near Savannah and you want to help, give Brother Robert a call at the Cathedral.
Celso Rosa lived in and constructed his belenes in the United States. A couple of years ago, he returned to his native Brazil, where he now sets up his belen at the Mosteiro de São Bento [Monastery of St. Benedict] in the mountains above the Vinhedo plain in Brazil. Most of his figures are from Olot.
There are several religious houses in the United States that keep up the tradition of displaying large Nativity scenes, although they are not necessarily Spanish. Regina Laudis, a Benedictine women’s monastery in Connecticut, has a large 18th century Neapolitan Nativity that is usually displayed in a separate building on their rural property.
Mepkin Abbey, a Trappist community near Charleston, South Carolina, has a large collection of Nativities from all over the world. The Nativities were gathered over a period of 50 years by a Charlestonian, Earl Kage, who now has some 300 sets of figures. The monastery sets up a beautifully curated display of about 50 examples from the collection every year around Thanksgiving. As visitors leave the exhibit, they vote on their favorite, and the "top five" make a return engagement the next year. Going to view the Mepkin Abbey Nativities has become a regular Charleston tradition. The Abbey has made a very nice DVD of their crèche collection, which you can see on their website.
There are also several American or English-language organizations devoted to crèche collecting, although not to Spanish Nativities in particular. There is the Friends of the Creche, a group with diverse interests that even has a bi-yearly convention and the Creche Guild, run by the extremely active and wide-ranging Alex Xenakis. It is devoted primarily to paper Nativity scenes, many from Germany or Eastern Europe, and is an attractive site with a mailing list and articles of interest to all. Finally, there is Christmas historian Bill Egan, whose website, Bill Egan's International Creche School focuses on Italian and German scenes but is a wealth of historical and construction information on world Nativity scenes in general.