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Kraków nativity scene, small, illuminated, not mechanical, multi-towered. The Holy Family is in the middle, set against the altar. On the right is a figure of a Kraków resident with a nativity scene, on the left is a figure of a highlander with a star. Above, in the recess (a kind of a side-altar), a figure of Christ (like from a contemporary painting), on the right a figure of a nun (St. Faustina).

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Kraków nativity scene, small, illuminated, not mechanical, multi-towered. The Holy Family is in the middle, set against the altar. On the right is a figure of a Kraków resident with a nativity scene, on the left is a figure of a highlander with a star. Above, in the recess (a kind of a side-altar), a figure of Christ (like from a contemporary painting), on the right a figure of a nun (St. Faustina). The two side towers look like the higher tower of St. Mary’s Church, and are crowned with white and red flags. The central tower is covered with a dome, topped with the crowned eagle. Multi-coloured.

Elaborated by the Historical Museum of the City of Kraków, © all rights reserved

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What is the origin of the Christmas nativity scene tradition?

The tradition of Polish Christmas nativity scenes has its roots in Italian nativity plays, which were brought to our land by the Franciscan Order. Initially, they were organised in the side altars of churches, and comprised figures of Baby Jesus, Mary, Saint Joseph, the shepherds and the Three Kings...

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The tradition of Polish Christmas nativity scenes has its roots in Italian nativity plays, which were brought to our land by the Franciscan Order. Initially, they were organised in the side altars of churches, and comprised figures of Baby Jesus, Mary, Saint Joseph, the shepherds and the Three Kings standing against the background of a Holy Land landscape. Over time they have been enriched with extended scenery and new figures, including secular ones, in order to increase their attractiveness.
The nativity scene figure sets featured the representatives of various nations, classes, occupations, military formations, national heroes, as well as figures in regional outfits, e.g., highlanders and traditional Kraków inhabitants. In the 18th century, the static figures started to be replaced with puppets that played out various scenes, often of a secular and humorous nature. Such shows enjoyed great interest on the part of viewers, and evoked animated reactions that were not in harmony with the seriousness of the places in which they were held. For this reason, at the end of the 18th century church authorities prohibited the organisation of movable nativity plays in churches and returned to multi-figure stationary compositions.

Elaborated by Anna Kozak (The Dr. Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane), © all rights reserved

See the wooden nativity sculpture Wooden sculpture “Highlander” from the collection at the Dr. Tytus Chałubiński Tatra Museum in Zakopane.
See the Nativity Scene by Franciszek Zięba from the collection at the Vistula Ethnographic Park in Wygiełzów and Kraków nativity scene by Maciej Moszew.
See puppets from the nativity play of “Zielony Balonik” [“Green Balloon”] cabaret in the collection from Małopolska’s Virtual Museums:
Puppets from the 
Zielony Balonik [Green Balloon] nativity play — Juliusz Leo

Puppets from the “Zielony Balonik” [“Green Balloon”] nativity play — Jacek Malczewski

A puppet from a nativity play of the “Zielony Balonik” [“Green Balloon”] cabaret representing Jacek Malczewski, created by Jan Szczepkowski

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Nativity scene – satirical scene

The Nativity scene, which, over time, started to adopt the form of a theatrical show, was accompanied by dialogues and singing. It was expanded by proscenium. People hidden under its floor animated the dolls, which bowed their heads to the Infant Jesus. The use of this quasi-theatrical formula during the holiday celebration was supposed to enrich the message, which, from the form of simply reading the text of the Holy Bible — most often during the liturgy — was transformed into presenting the events from the life of Christ before the audience of his followers. However, the Christmas pageant gradually started to laicize: there were more people taking part in the drama, and many scenes of secular nature were introduced. On the basis of the religious content, entertaining episodes (comedy).

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The Christmas pageant was a dramatized form of the Nativity scene, which was staged during the celebration as a liturgical drama. The Christmas pageant stemmed from the stable with the Holy Family, which was an occasional decoration of the Church. The Nativity scene, which, over time, started to adopt the form of a theatrical show, was accompanied by dialogues and singing. It was expanded by proscenium. People hidden under its floor animated the dolls, which bowed their heads to the Infant Jesus. The use of this quasi-theatrical formula during the holiday celebration was supposed to enrich the message, which, from the form of simply reading the text of the Holy Bible — most often during the liturgy — was transformed into presenting the events from the life of Christ before the audience of his followers. However, the Christmas pageant gradually started to laicize: there were more people taking part in the drama, and many scenes of secular nature were introduced. On the basis of the religious content, entertaining episodes (comedy) began to appear, and even, what might today be defined as “ gags” (read: Where did the tradition of Nativity scenes come from?).
This change in the form of conveying the message, assuming a far more entertaining character, contributed to moving nativity scenes outside church walls in the 18th century, following a bishop’s decree. Henceforth, the plays — performed in towns and villages — took the form of occasional, portable theatres, and some kind of folk spectacle of a profit-making nature. Plays were performed by those in the service of the Church, teachers, students, and townsmen. The folk and entertainment conventions (simplicity of message, crude humour) increased the tendency to supplement the script of the drama with the current affairs (characters, events), including satirical elements (comments about a given social situation). Nativity scenes became the main attraction and the resulted in a loss of religious content. They locally differed in their specificity and in the favourite characters of the audience.
Nativity scenes developed extensively in Warsaw, while, in the Kraków tradition, it took root in its local variety. The works of the 19th century Kraków sculptor, Michał Ezenekier, established the conventional form of the nativity scene. He introduced the commonly known repertoire of the characters, as well as the scenery inspired by the architecture of St. Mary’s church and Wawel castle. The scripts of Ezenekier’s Christmas pageants strongly emphasized political news of a patriotic character, as well as clear parodies of contemporary literature.
The nativity scene established a certain standard, through the use of which multiple types of content could be included. The flexibility of the plot and characters left room for many possibilities of interpretation.
Therefore, it is not surprising that, in the middle of the 19th century, individual literary and journalistic works — created using the convention of the nativity scene — began to appear. These texts were based on the plot of a dramatized folk scene, using its fixed elements (scenes, people), which served the purposes of critique or commentary inside a community. They were presented in the form of satire, often targeting a particular person (characters in the play represented certain people). In 1849, the famous Szopka by Teofil Lenartowicz (Wrocław, 1849) and Rok 1849 w jasełkach, by Leszek Dunin-Borkowski, (Tygodnik Lwowski, 1849) were published; in 1880, the texts: Szopka dla dorosłych dzieci and Szopka warszawska, by Wiktor Gomulicki, came outd.
In Kraków, the so-called Jewish nativity play, initiated by Józef Szujski, appeared: (Jasełka galicyjskie, 1875), Stanisław Tarnowski (Wędrówki po Galilei, 1873), and Lucjan Rydel in his famous drama Betlejem polskie (theatrical premiere: 1904, publication: 1906). The still vivid and popular spectacle in the form of a folk nativity scene and the phenomenon of the chłopomania (fashion for anything connected with peasants) at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries, became the foundation for the local avant garde to restore this tradition in theatrical and literary form, albeit in a satirical way. In 1906, in Jama Michalika, the first Szopka krakowska, by the cabaret “Zielony Balonik” [the Green Baloon] was performed. This became a phenomenal success and was the best parody of the folk scene so far. Artists and writers, using the formal scheme of the Christmas pageant in a derisive and irreverent convention, presented the current news from the Kraków’s scene of artistic and social life, without sparing comments and jokes. Szopka, by the Green Balloon cabaret, was performed occasionally. Its themes, despite revolving around Christmas, changed the repertoire of scenes and characters of the drama every time, representing various members of the community (dolls with portrait features). The literary variety of the nativity scene was continued in the interwar period by the Skamandrites; it was performed by the cabaret “Pod Pikadorem” in the same satirical vein, and its texts were published in “Cyrulik Warszawski”.
The sum of all these phenomena, which is the evolution of the nativity scene (from decoration, through liturgical drama, to folk theatre and literary form, culminating in the cabaret), allows us to understand the potential hidden in its plot convention. The nativity scene extended — according to the local specificity—to the genre scenes, identified with local issues, through which it created a permanent background and a topological repertoire of characters (as in commedia dell'arte). It provided the opportunity to update, that is, explore and comment on current events, taking almost the character of a “universal evergreen joke”, additionally presented in a form of spectacular, playful performance, enhancing its attractiveness.
The impact of the tradition of a typical Polish satirical nativity scene can be noticed in modern language, which results in a new, colloquial understanding of the word “szopka (nativity scene)” as: “situation, behaviour etc. calculated for a performance, considered as anything but serious”.

See also:
Nativity scenes by Maciej Moszew, Roman Sochacki, Marian Dłużniewski, nativity scene from Wieliczka, z nativity Scene by Franciszek Zięba;
Puppets from the “Zielony Balonik” (“Green Balloon”) nativity play — Jacek Malczewski and Juliusz Leo.

Elaborated by Paulina Kluz (Editorial team of Małopolskas Virtual Museums),
Licencja Creative Commons

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Poland License.

Bibliography:
Słownik języka polskiego PWN [access: 06.2015];
Grzegorz Sinko, "Betlejem polskie" po czterdziestu latach access: 06.2015];
Tomasz Weiss, Legenda i prawda Zielonego Balonika, Kraków 1976;
Ryszard Wierzbowski, O szopce: studia i szkice, Łódź 1990.

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Kraków nativity scene by Marian Dłużniewski

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