Spanish Nativity

 Where They Are Made

Olot and Murcia are the two places best known for their production of figures for Spanish Nativity scenes. Olot is in the north of Spain (about an hour by car from Barcelona), and Murcia is near the Mediterranean coast, south of Valencia (about 3 hours by car from Madrid).

The development of the school of Olot was due primarily to a historical accident involving one man, the 18th-19th century sculptor Ramón Amadeu I Grau. A well known maker of religious statuary and figures for Belenes and a favorite artist of Carlos IV, he took refuge in the small town of Olot during Napoleon’s invasion of Spain. His workshop was the seed from which the Nativity figure industry of Olot grew. The school was less ornate and more folkloric than that of Murcia, and figures were often represented in local Catalan dress. 

Catalan pessebres- the Catalan word for crèche or manger – were also responsible for the introduction of a rather strange little figure, the caganer, a little man squatting discreetly in the bushes answering nature’s call. The figure was usually tucked behind a tree or in some other semi-hidden place in the scene, and many Spaniards remember how much fun they had as children, trying to be the first to find where the caganer was “hiding.”

At the same time, Catalan pessebristes were very influenced by the 19th century's interest in historical accuracy.  Belenistas in Barcelona and Olot in particular began to research exactly what people were wearing, eating, drinking or even living in during the time of Jesus. Figures from Olot reflected this historical interest.  Many are produced by the old firm, Arte Cristiano. 

Facade of the famous Olot firm, El Arte Cristiano

The Catalan school was particularly interested in dioramas and miniatures, which are still produced in the region. Some of the finest modern dioramas are those of Br.Gilbert Galcerán, a Cistercian monk at the monastery of Solius in the Catalan province of Gerona, Spain, up in the hills north of Barcelona. Over a 35 year period, he built some 35 dioramas of the life of the Virgin and of Jesus, starting with the Presentation of the Virgin. The dioramas feature figures created by Martín Castells, a famous Barcelona sculptor of Nativity figures.      



 A temple scene from a Catalan diorama
 Exhibit of Nativity Scenes at Monastery of Solius.
 Doorway to the Monastery at Solius


Heading down the Mediterranean coMurcia Cathedral.ast to the south, we come to the other big area of Belén production, Murcia. Murcia has a long tradition of alfarería, or pottery, dating back to the time of the Romans or before. The dry, rocky area is rich in different types of clay, and for centuries its potters have turned out huge urns and vats for wine and olives, as well as tile and tableware and statuary. Murcia was a “natural” for the production of belén figures, and the art has flourished there since the 18th century and the time of Salzillo.

Museo Salzillo in Murcia.The school of Murcia was inspired by Francisco Salzillo, who in turn was inspired by Neapolitan artists. Like them, he lavished attention upon minor figures in the belén, making lively shepherds and even detailed, expressive animals in the style of the Neapolitan “presepio.” These figures are still basically the models for most modern figures of the Murcia school.  


There are many other places that have smaller but still significant production of Belén figures. Madrid, for example, has some very well known contemporary artists, such as José Mayo Lebrija, who have waiting lists of years for their commissioned work.

Figures by Jose Luis Mayo, Madrid figurista.

In Andalucía, the town of Puerto Santa María hasFigure of Virgin in traditional style of Andalucia. some well known sculptors. The Andalusian school was quite distinctive, favoring a highly lacquered, polychromed figure that was very expressive and dramatic and avoiding the occasionally frivolous Neapolitan approach.

There are also young artists from Southern Spain, such as
Joaquin Pérez, from Jerez de la Frontera, and José Angel Oviedo Costa, a Sevilla artist. 
Andalucia also has fine creators of complementos (accessories), such as
Gloria Botonero, who makes tiny pots and pans and household items to add realism to your belen.

Because the tradition of BCamels by Joaquin Perezelenismo is still alive in Spain, modern artists continue to create figures. Some very famous ceramics companies – such as Lladró – produce their versions, and there are many individual artists who work on commission and create unique masterpieces for discerning collectors.

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Spanish Nativity

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