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Krakow’s Nativity Scenes

by Kraków Heritage team
14.03.2023
Krakow's Nativity Scenes Krakow's Nativity Scenes
Every year you can find more and more of them in Kraków. Where did this charming tradition – Poland’s first entry on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List – come from?

On 29 November 2018, Kraków Nativity Scenewas introduced to the representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity as the first Polish entry. Held by UNESCO, the list aims to highlight and protect selected phenomena, practices and traditions handed down from generation to generation. The entry was the culmination of many years of efforts by the city authorities and cultural institutions, including above all the Museum of the City of Kraków, which coordinates the entire process.

Where do the fanciful compositions made of cardboard and candy wrappers, which can be seen in increasing numbers in the streets of Kraków, in shop windows and at Christmas markets, come from?

The history of the Manger of Jesus 

The cult of the Manger of Bethlehem is linked to the beginning of the celebration of Christmas in the Christian tradition – the construction of the Basilica of the Nativity in Bethlehem was inaugurated during the reign of the first Christian emperor of Rome, Constantine the Great. Information regarding the first religious celebration of the birth of Jesus in a life-size nativity scene is still fragmentary. The cult of Christmas increased in the first centuries of the Middle Ages, and the origins of the Nativity tradition are linked to the figure of St Francis of Assisi, who prepared a live nativity scene for the people of Greccio on Christmas Eve in the year 1223.

The nativity scene as we know it today originated in Naples in the early 16th century and enjoyed its heyday during the Baroque period: artistic innovations and technical advances were reflected in its form. Smaller moving figures appeared, richly painted backgrounds and Byzantine decorations were used, and the popularity of nativity scenes was so great that the faithful wanted to have them in their homes too. Anna Szałapak, in her excellent book Szopka krakowska jako zjawisko folkloru krakowskiego na tle szopki europejskiej (Kraków Nativity Scene. A Creation of Kraków Folklore against the Background of the European Phenomenon), reports that the oldest known nativity scene made before 1567 belonged to Princess Constanza Piccolomini di Aragona and contained 167 figures.

Gradually nativity scenes began to be made in other parts of Europe, but the circumstances of its appearance in Poland are not entirely clear. The richness of the Polish nativity scene from the second half of the 18th century, and its various types, lead us to believe that it was a long tradition, initially associated primarily with the travelling form of nativity plays and Christmas pageants. Over time, the custom of building richly decorated nativity scenes evolved from these.

The Mother Nativity Scene

The oldest known image of a Polish nativity scene dates from 1837, the heyday of its portable version. The development of nativity scene craft was fostered, among other things, by the growing popularity of folklore. The most interesting form was that of the Kraków nativity scene, which, according to Anna Szałapak, ‘has undergone considerable changes and evolutions in its over two-hundred-year history, so that it has survived to the present day in the form of a nativity scene built specifically for a competition.

The model for many nativity scenes is the large-scale nativity scene by Michal Ezenekier from the end of the 19th century, which used to belong to the Estreicher family and is kept in the collection of the Ethnographic Museum in Krakow, known as the ‘mother nativity scene’. Karol Estreicher described it as follows: ‘at first it burst with colours, only then did the architecture of the building amaze: reds, greens, violets, blue and yellow tones, black and mink, browns, silver and gold made up this orgy of colours like a living fire and like fire attracting’. Generations of nativity scene makers took inspiration from this and it was the mastery of its design that initiated the architectural style known as the Ezenekier style.

The museum’s collection also includes a nativity scene that belonged to Leon Wyczółkowski and was commissioned by Stanisław Wyspiański. The nativity scene influenced the work of modernist artists; poems and verses were written about it, and it was immortalised in paintings.

Kraków Nativity Scene – origins

Regardless of the further development of the nativity scene tradition, its roots remain thoroughly folk. They were originally made by craftsmen from the Kraków suburbs of the time – above all from Zwierzyniec and Krowodrza. We are talking here above all about construction workers. Nativity scene trading played an important role in the household budget during the winter, when work on the construction sites stopped. The craftsmen’s customers were the Kraków bourgeoisie.

Lit from the inside by candle flames, the nativity scenes also played the role of a portable theatre, wandering around the stairwells of Kraków’s tenement houses accompanied by live music.

Szałapak points out that ‘nativity scene masters, mostly bricklayers, carpenters and construction workers living in the suburbs of Kraków at the time (…) competed fiercely with each other. And it wasn’t just a matter of ambition. In the autumn and winter, when there was less construction work, nativity scenes were a way to make money.’

Kraków Nativity scene – design 

The Kraków nativity scene has developed features that distinguish it significantly from others, mainly due to the influence of Kraków’s sacred architecture.

The constructions of the nativity scenes are made of wood, plywood and cardboard, and they are decorated with coloured paper, tissue paper and multi-coloured, shiny, metallic foil, or even candy wrappers. The architecture of nativity scenes refers to the historical architecture of Kraków: motifs of St. Mary’s Church, the Sigismund Chapel at Wawel, the Barbakan, Sukiennice (Cloth Hall) and Brama Floriańska (Florian’s Gate) are used most often. The identity of the nativity scene is emphasised by the symbols of Kraków and Poland: the ‘K’ monogram, the crowned eagle, the white-blue and white-red flags. The central place in the nativity scene is always occupied by the Christmas scene.

At the outset of the 20th century, the ceremonial function of the nativity scene began to disappear. Nativity scenes were less and less likely to be seen wandering with carol singers through the streets of old Kraków, and the factory production of Christmas decorations slowly replaced the magic of manual work.

One could risk saying that the longevity of the tradition is owed to one man.

The Kraków Nativity Scene Contest

The Kraków Nativity Scene Contest has been held since 1937, when it was inaugurated on the initiative of Jerzy Dobrzycki, the head of the City Propaganda Office and, after World War II, the long-standing director of the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków. Dobrzycki saw the consequences of market transformations translating into the gradual disappearance of the tradition of making exquisite Kraków nativity scenes and distributing them throughout city households.

The annual competition takes place every first Thursday in December 2022. Usually several hundred nativity scene makers in various age categories take part, and prizes are awarded in over a dozen categories.

Preparations for the contest often take many months or even years. Instead of serving merely as a means of financial success, nativity scenes have become primarily a hobby and a passion for generations of citizens of Kraków.  Authentic nativity scene maker families such as the Malik family, associated with the Zwierzyniec district, have emerged.

The creations of the participants are displayed on the steps of the Adam Mickiewicz Monument in the Market Square. The miniature towers and cloisters look magnificent against the backdrop of their monumental prototypes in the historic surroundings of Kraków’s most important square. The nativity scenes then find their way to a post-competition exhibition at the Kraków Museum.

Kraków Nativity Scene today

The prestigious 2018 entry was another milestone in the development of this extraordinary tradition. For many years now, the most beautiful nativity scenes from the collection of the Kraków Museum have been displayed in display stands in the streets of the Old Town and in the vitrines of selected shops as part of the ‘Around the Nativity Scenes’ project run by the KBF. Portable nativity scenes are increasingly being offered at Christmas markets as Christmas decorations and souvenirs from Kraków.

The competition is growing in popularity, involving not only local residents, but also participants from other parts of Poland and even from abroad. An increasing number of Kraków’s kindergartens and primary schools are enrolling, with their pupils preparing their own compositions. The compositions often refer to current events, while remaining faithful to the basic structural premises.

It can be said that today Kraków feels fully proud of and aware of this tradition. Let’s keep it that way!

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Kraków

No, this is not all there is to say about Krakow. Heritage is an open-ended collection – it’s up to us to fill it with meaning!

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