Tuesday, November 28, 2017

The Original Nativity Scene

Away from the spend, spend, spend fury of Black Friday in Palma, a tradition was being observed at Palma town hall. The nativity scene was officially opened. It is just one of the very many that will appear elsewhere in the city and across Mallorca over the next days and weeks. These will be official nativity scenes and the unofficial. There will naturally also be the scenes in Mallorca's homes, figures for which may well have been purchased at the market in Palma's Plaça Major. While shoppers were hurrying to get their discounted goods at the shops in the centre of the city, they would also have been able to stop off at this market, which is devoted to decorations for the "belén".

One of the more anticipated of the nativities may well be in the village of Maria de la Salut. Since 2014, a resident of Maria - Nadal Ferriol - has been creating lavish nativities that show the village. For last year's he started working on it in the summer. Two buildings presented him with a particularly arduous task: 6,000 roof tiles of two different sizes were needed. A novelty in 2016 was that the Three Kings arrived by car.

Nadal, appropriately named given what Nadal means (Christmas), doesn't do this all on his own. Many of the actual figures were made last year by Margalida Nicolau. In Maria itself there is a tradition of making nativities. The residents consider it to be something to be maintained. Nadal believes that nativities are an art form, and he's probably not wrong. The end-product of his endeavours has been superb.

He and Margalida are both members of the Betlemistes de Mallorca association (or Asociación de Belenes de Mallorca). Yes, there really is an association for nativity scene makers. Another member is Antonia Tomás. She lives in Llucmajor. Her nativities have included elements such as the Torrent de Pareis in Sa Calobra. She makes one each year, starting work after the last autumn fair in Llucmajor. It goes on show in her house. People travel from across the island to admire her work.

The nativities can therefore be highly elaborate and fantastic creations, and in their loving detail they reflect a very old tradition. It is in fact suggested that the oldest nativity scene in Spain is in Mallorca at the Iglesia de la Anunciación (known also as the Iglesia de la Sangre) in Palma.

So the story goes, in 1536 a ship from Italy was hit by a severe storm that dragged it towards the coast of the island. The ship's captain, Domingo Gangome, apparently made a gift of the nativity to the monastery of Nuestra Señora de Los Ángeles de Jesús (Our Lady of the Angels of Jesus). A light had guided him to port and to safety. Domingo made a promise to God that if he and his ship were spared, then one of the seven cribs on board would be a gift. There was just a small light on top of the monastery that guided him to shore. The scene was moved to the church where it now is some three centuries later.

Rudolf Berliner, a German who specialised in mediaeval art, studied the Gothic pieces that make up the scene. He attributed them to Pietro and Giovanni Alamanno, who were active in the final quarter of the fifteenth century and were known for nativity scenes in Naples. So, the one which turned up in Palma was by that time around fifty years old. A mystery was where the figures had been previously and what the destination of the figures on the ship had been. It is hypothesised that they had at one time been ordered from the Neapolitan court by Ferdinand of Aragon, the husband of Isabel. If this was the case, then it took a long time for the order to be delivered (or not delivered); Ferdinand died in 1516.

But was the nativity in Palma really the first in Spain? It is believed that there were others in Mallorca and the Balearics and also in parts of eastern Spain. The Franciscan Order, it has been suggested, had been responsible for arranging their distribution. A few years before the Alamannos were gaining their reputation, there was evidence of a nativity (a basic one at any rate) in the cathedral in Valencia.

The Palma nativity probably wasn't the first, but what can be said with some reasonable certainty was that it was the first with high artistic quality, the work of Neapolitan sculptors.

* Photo of the Iglesia de la Anunciación nativity from http://quaderns.balearweb.net.

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