The oldest nativity scene in Spain?

In the small town of Maria de la Salut, there is someone whose Christian name is Christmas who is responsible for giant nativity scenes. Nadal Ferriol makes a habit of this. He created a huge nativity last year and he has gone one step, or several steps further this year. Nadal's "belén" for the Nadal festivities is something of a re-creation of the small town that is replete with traditional figures and manger. He certainly isn't the only one to engage in this model-making. The making of nativities has become one of high art and of competition as to who can make the most monumental of monumental nativities: El Corte Inglés typically seeks to scoop the annual accolade.

Such is the local attention to nativity detail that it has now found prominence in municipal publicity for the festive scene. Hence, for instance, Bunyola features the image of a village nativity participant: a farming type chap with a bundle of straw attached to his back who appears to be being sniffed by a sheep (or possibly a lamb).

The nativities have thus become like model villages, and their making is most definitely not confined to public displays. So popular is the household nativity model-making that entire sections of festive markets - as in Palma, for instance - are devoted to the sale of nativity figures.  

Rather than slowing down, despite Christmas having been and gone, nativity-scene fever is now at fever pitch, the consequence of the traditional nativities featuring their main protagonists, other than the family members of course. The Three Kings of the Orient have followed yonder star and they are now about to assume centre-stage, both in nativities and in parades.

Such activity has origins that date back many a long century, with the depiction of the manger or crib and its associated livestock and what have you following a ritual according to the festive schedule. Hence, the Three Kings didn't actually appear - or shouldn't have - until it was their day. Well, obviously they wouldn't have, or the whole Three Kings concept wouldn't have had quite the same meaning as it did and of course still does have. So while the baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph, swaddling clothes and other accessories were permissible from Christmas Eve, the Kings had to be kept well out of sight until Twelfth Night.

These origins were not of the model variety. Rather, they were real people and the whole nativity tradition is said to have started in Italy in the early thirteenth century. Given the success of this live performance, the church assumed responsibility for providing handmade nativity-scene specifications, whether for the local church and public places or for the home. Which brings us, naturally enough, to what is understood to be the first nativity scene, crib, manger, call it what you will, in Majorca and which may also be the oldest in Spain.

It is in the chapel in the Iglesia de la Anunciación in Palma, but how did it come to be there? It is believed to be the work of carvers by the name of Alamanno from Naples and was crafted some time between 1460 and 1480. However, and despite the Alamanno family having apparently been fairly well-known for this type of artisan work, this is too simple an explanation when there is a good legend to compete with it. And this is that the various pieces revealing the secrets of the Mother of God were on a ship that was on its way from Italy in 1536 and encountered a fierce storm. As luck would have it, the ship was close to Palma, and monks from the convent of Our Lady of the Angels came to the aid of the ship's captain, one Domingo Gangonne, who offered to give them one of the secrets if they could help rescue the stricken vessel. When the captain refused to hand over the monks' preferred secret, i.e. the nativity scene, he discovered that the rescued ship wouldn't budge. Taking this as a sign from God, he willingly handed over the nativity and off he went.

So there you have the real story (probably) and the legend of how the first nativity scene came to be in Majorca. I understand the scene from the chapel is not on show at present because it is being restored, but the process of restoration may - so it is hoped - be able to establish for certain who was responsible for it and how it indeed came to be there. Meantime, there are plenty of other nativity scenes to admire, but none with the quite same secret of the secrets of the Mother of God.

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