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Imagining Christ's Birth.

By Dr. Jaime C. Laya

New Yorkers look forward to the Metropolitan Museum of Art's Star Tree, a giant blue spruce hung with angel figures. Like fireflies, 55 of them hover above the Holy Family, the Three Kings, shepherds, townspeople--peasants, shopkeepers, musicians, noblemen--and animals. People are six to 20 inches high, with polychromed terracotta heads; wood, metal, or wire bodies, limbs, and wings; and dressed in richly embroidered silk. The spectacle has 233 figures, all 18th century Neapolitan.

Nowadays our belAaAaAeA@ns tend to be run-of-the mill. Creative juices pour mainly on materials (e.g., recycled newspapers and plastic bottles) and general feel (contemporary, rural, colonial). We had elaborate ensembles in times past--the basic dozen or so plus numerous farm people in baro't saya and loose trousers carrying produce-filled baskets. Another type was of the Holy Family protected by the Seven Archangels with Baby Jesus sometimes on a miniature four-poster bed.

The loaded had year-round crAaAaAeA?ches under fragile glass domes (virina enhanced with miniature tableaux of New and Old Testament stories and of daily life. One (see the illustration) has the Holy Family in a hillside cave with the Three Kings approaching on horseback. On the hilltop are picknicking villagers and around are blown glass figures depicting the massacre of the innocents, a lust-filled David namboboso with a telescope the soaking Bathsheba, Jonah in a hut waiting for God's wrath to descend on wicked Nineveh.

CrAaAaAeA?ches began with San Francisco de AsAaAaAeA s who in December 1223 a to the Mass a reenactment of the Nativity with living people and animals. The idea quickly spread and nativity scenes (presepios) developed into representations of Christ's birth in the outskirts of an imagined village with market vendors, carousing tavern goers, farmers, shepherds, and fishermen, beggars and aristocrats, women hanging out the wash, children playing, etc.

King Carlos III of Spain (1716-1788) ordered a gigantic set for his son, the future Carlos IV. It had 6,000 figures and objects including silver platters for the Three Kings' dinners. Made in Naples by top artists, the main characters were half-a-meter high, and dressed in embroidered silk and velvet. Enthusiasm has remained high and presepio-making continues to flourish in Italy and Spain.

Some years back, Bea Zobel de Ayala, Jr. tried to encourage Bohol cultural industries and thought a Filipino crAaAaAeA?che might catch on. She broug Medilen Singh on board.

Says Medi, "I took pictures of the houses, trees, animals, and people that surrounded the [Dauis, Bohol] church and leading to the church. This served as the setting for the belAaAaAeA@n. Two sculptors executed ea item in clay with precision. The belAaAaAeA@n was 3 m x 3 m showing the chur at the center and the village around it. I put 24 figures together made of resin and a bamboo kubo for the holy family which was sold in Dauis and the Ayala Museum." Unfortunately the project has ended.

Escuela Taller de Filipinas Foundation, Inc. is thinking of taking the idea on and hopes to offer a Pinoy presepio by next year.

Notes: (a) A monument to King Carlos IV stands in Manila's Plaza de Roma in gratitude for his introduction of smallpox vaccine in the Philippines; (b) Floy Quintos once had at his Gallery Deus shop, an antique Bohol nativity set with handwritten names on the archangels figures: San Miguel, San Gabriel, San Rafael, and the lesser-known Uriel, Barachiel, Jehudiel, and Salatiel; and (c) namboboso (or naninilip) is Tagalog for surreptitiously peeping as in Peeping Tom.

Comments are cordially invited, addressed to


Nativity scene Clockwise from left: The Star Tree of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art (photo from the Museum website); a Nativity virina from Quezon province; and Archangels Gabriel, Miguel, and Rafael among the seven archangels guarding the Holy Family in a Bohol bel
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Title Annotation:Arts and Culture
Publication:Manila Bulletin
Geographic Code:9PHIL
Date:Dec 18, 2017
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