Candida Martinelli's Italophile Site

Main Page This family-friendly site celebrates Italian culture for the enjoyment of children and adults. Site-Overview



Italian Nativity Art


Rel. Art


Xmas Story

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La Befana


Giotto's Nativity: Birth of Jesus fresco (200 x 185 cm) from 1304-06 in the Cappella Scrovegni (Arena Chapel)

Giotto's nativity illustrates my page with Saint Matthew's account of Jesus of Nazareth's birth, in Italian and in English.  It is from the gospels of Matthew and Luke that we have our nativity story today.




This beautiful image by artist Filippino, of Mary praying to baby Jesus, is one of many on my Traditional Christmas Card page.  I provide some images you might like to download for use on homemade cards.  From that page, I also link to a shop I set up at Zazzle with Traditional, religious Christmas cards in English and Italian.




I have a page with images of angels from Italian art, always a part of any Nativity scene, usually hovering over the manger.  You are free to copy them for your own Christmas messages.

On the same page I feature the angels of Italian painter Fra Angelico, the master of heavenly angels that seem to glow with heavenly, golden light.  Here is Fra Angelico's Angel Gabriel from a painting of the Annunciation.









Here are some icons you can save and use, if you'd like.











For those who wish to pray in Italian, I have the common Catholic prayers in English and Italian on my Prayers page.

Raffaello's Holy Family with Lamb


Italy's Fontanini make high quality resin creche / belen / crib / kerststal ... setting and figurines.  The Fontanini Superstore sells them online in the US, and Christmas Central ships them around the world.

Lladro sells porcelain nativity scenes and figurines online from their own site.

For a detailed history of Nativity Art, visit wikipedia's page.  It provides a summary of the nativity story, and a history of the evolution of Nativity Art.

Wikipedia also has a page just about the Nativity story itself, which comes from the gospels of Matthew and Luke.


Sister Wendy's Nativity looks anew at the Christmas story and invites us to consider the true significance of Christ's life. Her personal selection of over 40 beautiful paintings from manuscripts held by the Vatican and Italian State Libraries (many seen here for the first time) illustrate stories that are familiar to us all, yet whose significance is so often elusive.

Italy has long tradition of representing the nativity scene of Jesus of Nazareth, and not just in paintings (many of which are reproduced below).  The nativity is a classic subject for Italian artists. 

At one time, only religious art was condoned by the powerful Catholic Church, so each artist made his obligatory nativity.  Actually, private commissions from wealthy families meant that artists made hundreds of nativity scenes during their careers.



The Vatican, in 2004, held an exhibit of nativity themed art.  The Archbishop in charge had this to say about nativity art.

"These are not just works of art, but also works of faith.  And it is the faith which, in turn, produces culture".

The nativity has been represented in paintings, ceramics, dioramas, carved images, poetry, literature, song, plays, stained glass, cardboard...any form of art you can imagine.



St. Francis of Assisi (1200s) is said to have been the first to create the nativity scene that today we call a crib or crèche, that is a tradition at Christmas for many Christians.  But the tradition of setting up a scene with statues and decor was long a pagan tradition in Italy, meant to honor ancestors.

St. Francis created a nativity scene using real animals (Un presepio vivente), and the tradition is carried on to this day in Assisi, Italy. 

Many communities today do the same, with some actually acting out the Christmas story with actors portraying Mary and Joseph arriving at Bethlehem, the holy birth and then the arrival of the three Magi.  Some then recount how Mary and Joseph fled with the baby Jesus to Egypt to escape Harod's assassins.



In Italian homes, it is common to find a nativity scene at Christmas.  Depending on the ambition of the man of the house, the nativity scene can be small, or cover the entire dining table.  The presepio tends to get more elaborate as one travels south in Italy.



The Archbishop said that the crèche (crib, presepio, belen...) that people set up in their homes, or in churches:

"...was more than a folkloric way to represent Christ's birth.  It was designed as an occasion for meditation and prayer.  The addition of many figures to Nativity scenes reminds viewers that Jesus arrived in the midst of human activity."



Some people question the presence in the manger of donkeys and oxen, but the Archbishop explained:

"...they [donkeys] were added, along with the oxen, to echo the words of the prophet Isaiah:  'An ox knows its owner, and an ass its master's manger; but Israel does not know, my people have not understood'."

As for the ruins that are often depicted in the background of nativity scenes, they actually represent something specific:

"...they depict the ruins of the Temple of Peace in Rome, which according to an ancient prediction would collapse only when a virgin gave birth."

The ruin story is that on the night of Christ's birth, the Basilica of Maxentius in Rome partly fell to the ground.  Only ruins remain today.



To be honest, the most elaborate nativity scenes that I have ever seen in homes, and in public spaces, have been in Spain, where a crib is called a Belen (Bethlehem).  Spaniards create what's called historical crèches.

You can purchase elaborate pieces for your Belen at outdoor Christmas markets, including the standard Mary, Joseph, Jesus, Magi, shepherds, and animals, but also Roman garrisons, buildings to make the town, working water mills and wells, Roman temples, synagogues, and the inhabitants of Bethlehem with items related to their daily occupations.







Some Italian Nativity Paintings


From a prayer book owned by Lorenzo de' Medici (Il Magnifico) from 1458.  You can read about Lorenzo on my site.


These images are collected from various pages from my site, many from biographies of artists that are suitable for young adults and children, too.




This terra cotta 'Nativity' is by Giovanni Della Robbia