28 December 2007

In order to arouse devotion

Ah yes, so I was talking about the prevalence of cribs and relative dearth of carols in Dublin, and wondering whether this might reflect some of the differences between Catholic and Protestant Christianity.

My theory was that the Irish emphasis on the crib over the carol reflects how Catholic Christianity has a strong visual sense, largely due to it having developed well before the printing revolution of the fifteenth century, whereas the English penchant for the carol is a manifestation of the Protestant emphasis on words rather than pictures, a natural development of the mass production of Bibles that followed Herr Gutenberg's invention.

I don't think this theory should be overplayed, of course, partly because the Church of England has long seen itself as both Reformed and Catholic, but mainly because I've done hardly any work on this whatsoever. I rather wonder whether there's a popular history of the tradition of the crib. Surely there must be?

From Bethlehem...
Anyway, from what little reading I've done, it seems that at least from the Second Century the site in Bethlehem where the Basilica of the Nativity is situated was honoured among Christians. Origen, writing early in the Third Century, records that:
'With respect to the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, if any one desires, after the prophecy of Micah and after the history recorded in the Gospels by the disciples of Jesus, to have additional evidence from other sources, let him know that, in conformity with the narrative in the Gospel regarding His birth, there is shown at Bethlehem the cave where He was born, and the manger in the cave where He was wrapped in swaddling-clothes. And this sight is greatly talked of in surrounding places, even among the enemies of the faith, it being said that in this cave was born that Jesus who is worshipped and reverenced by the Christians.' (Against Celsus, 1.51)
Even if we discount the Protoevengelium of James, as being difficult to reliably date, the tradition that the stable in which Luke places the birth of Our Lord was in fact a cave is first borne witness to by St Justin Martyr, writing in the middle of the second century. Justin observes that:
'But when the Child was born in Bethlehem, since Joseph could not find a lodging in that village, he took up his quarters in a certain cave near the village; and while they were there Mary brought forth the Christ and placed Him in a manger, and here the Magi who came from Arabia found Him.' (Dialogue with Trypho, 78)
This is not for a moment to say that the historicity of the traditional site of the Nativity can be established -- that's a very different question -- merely to say that the historicity of the tradition itself can be established as dating back, surely, to at least a few decades before the time that Justin wrote, so to no later than the early Second Century. It's worth remembering too that Justin was born around 100 AD in Flavia Neapolis, less than fifty miles north of Bethlehem; as such, he would have been in a position to have learned of such local traditions, and it should not surprise us if those traditions should have predated Justin's birth.

Indeed, it is worth bearing in mind that there is some evidence supporting such a theory. St Jerome, writing towards the end of the Fourth Century, at a time when he was living in Bethlehem, records that:
'From Hadrian's time until the reign of Constantine, for about 180 years, the Gentiles used to worship an image of Jupiter set up in the place of the Resurrection and on the rock of the Cross a marble statue of Venus. For the authors of the persecution supposed that by polluting the Holy Places with idols they would do away with our faith in the Resurrection and the Cross. Bethlehem, now ours, and the earth's most sacred spot of which the Psalmist sings 'the truth hath sprung from the earth', was overshadowed by a grove of Thammuz, which is Adonis, and in the cave where the infant Messiah once cried, the paramour of Venus was bewailed.' (Ep. ad Paul, 58.3)
Leaving aside the curiosity of how Jerome apparently regarded the site of the Nativity as more sacred than the sites of the Crucifixion and the Resurrection, which is surely worthy of contemplation for other reasons, what's striking about this is that if Jerome is right it seems that already by 135 -- following the Bar Kokhba Revolt, during which the area was devastated and its Jewish residents driven out -- the Bethlehem sanctuary was important enough for the Romans to believe it needed cultic neutralisation. It seems unlikely that the local Christians would have been allowed to worship in a pagan site, and it is telling that they did not simply shift their focus of worship to another site in the area; they clearly remained fast in their belief that this cave had been the site of the Nativity, and indeed seem to have at least occasionally shown it to visitors.

During the early Fourth Century what must have been a simple grotto shrine or cave sanctuary was converted into an chapel by the Empress Helena and further developed by her son Constantine, with Constantine's church being largely rebuilt by Justinian in the late sixth century.

To Rome...
During the pontificate of Sixtus III in the early Fifth Century there had been an oratory called the 'Cave of the Nativity' in the basilica of Sancta Maria Maggiore, erected it would seem as a response to the recognition of Mary as Theotokos -- 'God-bearer' -- at the Council of Ephesus in 431. The oratory would have been opulently decorated with gold and silver and all manner of precious ornaments.

At some point relics were taken from Bethlehem to Rome, with the most likely date of this being the middle of the Seventh Century, possibly by Sophronius, patriarch of Jerusalem when it came under attack from the rising Muslims. Support for this comes from the rededication of the basilica as Sancta Maria ad Praesepe by Pope Theodorea, a native of Jerusalem who served as Pope between 642 and 649. During the Eighth Century, Pope Hadrian I had an altar erected in the basilica which may have been for the purpose of displaying the relics. It is difficult to be certain of this, as the earliest clear historical reference to them dates to the Eleventh Century.

To Greccio...
Throughout the Middle Ages devotion to the Nativity grew throughout Christendom, with this devotion being expressed through depictions, elaborate liturgies, and mystery plays. Nativity plays developed in France in the Eleventh and Twelfth Centuries, with real mangers being erected by the altar with a statue of Mary being placed nearby. Popular devotion to the crib was transformed following a celebration in Greccio in Central Italy in 1223.

The earliest account of this celebration, written by Thomas of Celano just six years later, three years after the death of St Francis of Assisi, tells of how Francis spoke to his friend Giovanni Vellita -- a nobleman who had become inspired to follow Christ through the example of Francis -- and instructed him that he wished to do 'something that will recall to memory the little Child who was born in Bethlehem and set before our bodily eyes in some way the inconveniences of his infant needs, how he lay in a manager, how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he lay upon the hay where he had been placed.'

And so, fifteen days later:
'The manger was prepared, the hay had been brought, the ox and ass were led in. There simplicity was honored, poverty was exalted, humility was commended, and Greccio was made, as it were, a new Bethlehem. The night was lighted up like the day, and it delighted men and beasts. The people came and were filled with new joy over the new mystery. The woods rang with the voices of the crowd and the rocks made answer to their jubilation. The brothers sang, paying their debt of praise to the Lord, and the whole night resounded with their rejoicing. The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with love, and filled with a wonderful happiness. The solemnities of the Mass were celebrated over the manger and the priest experienced a new consolation.

The saint of God was clothed with the vestments of the deacon, for he was a deacon, and he sang the holy Gospel in a sonorous voice. And his voice was a strong voice, a sweet voice, a clear voice, a sonorous voice, inviting all to the highest rewards. Then he preached to the people standing about, and he spoke charming words concerning the nativity of the poor king and the little town of Bethlehem.'
The passage is interesting not least because it provides us with the only evidence that Francis was a deacon rather than a priest, which surprised me, but in the context of the development of popular devotion to the crib its real importance lies its emphasis on the poverty, the humanity, and sheer fragility of Our Lord.

You can see it depicted here on a fresco in Assisi's Basilica of Saint Francis, traditionally attributed to Giotto and dated to the last decade of the Thirteenth Century, though it may well have been painted by another artist in the early years of the following century.

The ox and ass seem disproportionately tiny, but they're surely not meant to be models -- the historical accounts record that the animals were led into the cave. Presumably then a calf and a young donkey were used -- or were assumed to have been used -- as being more biddable than mature beasts. This depiction seems to be based not so much on Thomas's account as on the slightly later account of St Bonaventure, which says rather more than Thomas about the role of the child in this event, though his description perhaps raises more questions than it answers.

Bonaventure's shorter account of the episode, written a few decades later than that of Thomas, attempts to put the story into some sort of context, recording that Francis sought permission from the Pope for his service at Greccio. This makes sense: Francis had been in Rome in 1223, composing the final version of his Rule as approved by Pope Honorius III on 29 November, and the Pope would surely have granted his approval for the ceremony in light of his predecessor Innocent III's denunciation in 1207 of the irreverence that marked many mystery plays. Francis, he might have hoped, would do something to restore a real sense of solemnity and humility to popular devotion to the crib.

Certainly, the Greccio ceremony marked a new beginning in that it wasn't a play in any sense, lacking dialogue or acting of any sort, with the traditional figures -- Mary and Joseph, shepherds, magi, and random extras -- all apparently being absent. Indeed, Thomas's version even raises the possibility that there may not have been a child --or an effigy thereof -- in the manger!

And Around the World...
Whatever happened in Greccio seems to have had the desired effect, as cribs and crib ceremonies spread throughout Christendom, helped to no small degree by the missionary zeal of the Franciscans. Towards the end of the Thirteenth Century Pope Nicolo IV commissioned the Tuscan sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio to create a Nativity scene at the Cave of the Nativity in Rome's Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore; these have been moved about the church a bit since, but are still on display, the oldest carved Nativity scene in the world. While mystery plays had a resurgence in popularity, carved cribs began to displace them in popular devotion, with the Medieval term praesepe being gradually abandoned in favour of such local terms as 'presepio', 'creche', 'nacimento', 'belem', 'krippe', 'and of course 'crib'.

By the Sixteenth Century, with the mystery plays fading away, the crib had become perhaps the centrepiece of popular piety at Christmas, largely driven by the Jesuits especially in central Europe. Home cribs -- which had been known of since the Fifteenth Century -- became increasingly popular from the start of the Seventeenth Century, appropriately promoted by the Capuchin Friars, and crib-making became an important folk art in Iberia, the Tyrol, and Southern Italy and Sicily.

You'll note that crib-making doesn't really seem to have caught on in the Protestant lands which takes us back to my initial suspicion that the early Protestants may have looked askance on such popular ways of retelling the Christmas story, without explicit reference to scripture.

Coming back to England!
It's curious, in light of this, that the traditional English mince pie -- flavoured with three spices in memory of the three gifts of the Magi and baked in the shape of a manger holding a child -- seems to have lost its oblong shape during the Seventeenth Century, thereby gaining the round shape by which we all know it today. We all know the story, after all, of how in 1657 Cromwell's government effectively banned Christmas and all its trappings, seeing it as a quasi-pagan festival not sanctioned -- let alone demanded -- by the Bible! Mince pies naturally were among the forbidden festive trappings, and by the time they emerged from the Puritan shadows they seem to have adopted their current shape, devoid of their old explicitly Christian form.

Cromwell represented an extremist faction, though, and the Church of England has long prided itself on being -- in its eyes -- both Reformed and Catholic, as I've said. As such, England's hardly devoid of cribs, and indeed, it seems that crib services are rather more important to the Church of England than they are to the Catholic Church in either England or Ireland.

I was chatting to a friend the other week, with her saying she was looking forward to being home for the Crib Service.
'The what?' I asked.
'The crib service.'
'What's that?'
'It's a crib service.'
'Oh,' I mused, thinking that I was sure I'd been as puzzled by an almost identical conversation last year.
And so, perplexed, never having experienced such a thing, I sought an explanation from some of my friends; the English Catholics were as clueless as me, but one self-described agnostic Anglican explained that they were traditional ceremonies held in churches on Christmas Eve, with the children dressing as shepherds, angels, animals, whatever, acting out the Nativity story as part of a service. He drily noted that they also gave plenty of parents an opportunity to get the children off the scene whilst busying themselves about whatever urgent tasks remained.

It sounds like rather a good idea on all counts, though it seems, having gandered online, that it's not an exclusively Anglican phenomenon, or at least not anymore. A Catholic Crib Service came pretty close to the top of the first google search I did. Amusingly, in my searches I also found a link to a clip on YouTube of a Crib Service in Putney last year, where the participants sing a rather jolly festive reworking of 'Old MacDonald had a Farm'.

All very well, you might think, but I reckon you'd have had to listen very carefully in Bethlehem back in the day if you'd wanted to hear an 'oink! oink!' here, or an 'oink! oink!' there, let alone an 'oink! oink!' everywhere.

Or, I suppose, perhaps not.

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