The creation of nativity scenes is a fairly widespread tradition in Catalonia. From mid December, many homes, especially those with small children, dedicate a corner of the house to the creation of a display that includes the Mother of God, Saint Joseph and Baby Jesus. The representation also includes an ox and donkey and it is surrounded by shepherds and the Magi or Three Wise Men travelling towards the scene. What is not so well known is that one particular technique used in the creation of Nativity Scenes, and known internationally as the Barcelona School, has been an enormous success. This technique has triumphed in those countries with a long standing nativity scene tradition. This method or style is the diorama. Each year a number of exhibitions are held at various points around the city.
The nativity scene tradition in Catalonia has quite a long history. The folklorist Joan Amades explains the tradition in his Costumari Català: “The nativity scene is one of the typical features of December, which we usually inaugurate during this month, between the feast day of Saint Lucy and Christmas Eve, depending on each case, and the exhibition usually continues until Candlemas”.
To find the origins of this scene representing the birth of Jesus, we need to go back to the mystery plays that used to be staged in front of churches from the early 10th century on, and which the Gran Enciclopèdia Catalana defines in the following manner: “dramatic representation of a religious theme, medieval in origin, in which scenes from the lives of Christ, the Mother of God or some saint were depicted”. It would appear that Saint Francis of Assisi was the first person to create this representation with model figures back in 1223. The tradition gradually spread and it established itself as a very popular tradition during the 15th century. Naples was one of the main centres for nativity scenes, and from here the tradition spread to Catalonia, and on from there to the rest of the Iberian peninsula.
Joan Amades explains a custom that was fairly widespread in his time: “those who create nativity scenes enjoy showing them to others. They light up the nativity scene on certain days of the week, especially holidays and feast days, and at times of the day when workers can come to view it. Some gave out invitations, but generally, nobody was ever refused entry if they knocked at the door and asked to see the nativity scene or crib”. This fondness for nativity scenes and the desire to show them to others has lasted up to the present day through the Barcelona Association of Nativity Scene Builders. The Association, as it explains on its web site, was created towards the end of the decade of the 1850s and it is the oldest organisation of its kind in the world.
The President of the Association, Jordi Capella, explains that it was precisely a nativity scene builder and Secretary of the Association, Antoni Moliné, who created the diorama effect that is much used today and highly appreciated in the international arena. This technique became known as the Barcelona School. Each year, Moliné built the nativity scene of the Saint Joseph convent and school of the Carmelite order situated on Carrer del Montseny, where his sister was a nun. In 1912, it was necessary to make a smaller nativity scene than normal as the building was undergoing renovations. This gave the nativity scene creator the idea of using plaster rather than the traditional cork tree bark to make the mountains, allowing him to play with perspective. In this way, the space occupied by the nativity scene was reduced by 30%. With the passage of time, the technique was developed and improved upon. It then spread from Barcelona throughout Catalonia and the Iberian peninsula, before extending to most of the other countries where there is now a strong nativity scene tradition.
Each Christmas, the city is filled with exhibitions of dioramas, such as those that are traditionally mounted at the church of Betlem on the Rambla, at the headquarters of the Association of Nativity Scene Builders situated at number 11 Carrer de Lledó, or the Monestir de Pedralbes. Others worthy of special mention include the nativity scene at Plaça de Sant Jaume, and this year for the first time, that of the Born Cultural Centre, created using life-size figures.