Nativity scene with figures in front of the Gulf of Naples with Vesuvius in the background.

The nativity scene collection at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum

Away in a manger...

Munich’s Bayerisches Nationalmuseum owns the world’s most artistically valuable and extensive collection of nativity scenes. Among the most notable pieces in its collection are the Christmas scenes created in the Alpine region and in the artisan nativity centres of Italy between 1700 and 1900. As the curator of the collection, Thomas Schindler enjoys pointing out the many surprising and humorous details of the pieces on his tours. An interview.

Thomas Schindler has been the head of the Volkskunde (folk art) department at the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum since 2016. He is responsible for the museum’s special collection of historical everyday cultural objects, which includes ceramics, furniture, glass, toys, tools, guild artefacts, historic legal items and religious folk art. Schindler is also the expert on the museum’s world-renowned nativity scene collection, which contains around 6,000 figures and about 20,000 other pieces such as buildings, furniture, nativity backdrops and plants. The manger show is a real highlight, especially during the pre-Christmas period.

 

Mr Schindler, I’m going to dive straight in: among this huge selection of nativity scenes, do you have a favourite?

My favourite nativity scene from our permanent exhibition is the Bohemian paper crib that was made by an ivory carver as a side project, and which has more than a thousand figures and components. People are always surprised by the lively individual motifs and the humorous allusions to be found.

Humour in the Bethlehem Christmas story? You don’t really expect that ...

The comical references were intended to appeal to children in particular, so they would look really closely at the nativity scene. A lot of crib scenes have something funny hidden in them, and children love searching those out.

In Naples they have the “caccone” – a man squatting down to relieve himself somewhere within the scene, while Munich’s nativity scenes often include a dog doing its business, and in the Bohemian paper crib we can find cows depositing cow pats.

It may seem a little crude to us, but as a natural process it was not perceived as disrespectful. Traditionally, the first child to find the figure received a small gift, and was assured of good luck for the entire year that followed.

The comical references were intended to appeal to children in particular, so they would look really closely at the nativity scene. A lot of crib scenes have something funny hidden in them, and children love searching those out.
Thomas Schindler

Searching for these figures certainly gives children and adults just as much pleasure today. How did the Bayerisches Nationalmuseum end up with such a huge collection?

The vast majority of the manger scenes we have were donated to us by Munich banker and businessman Max Schmederer (1854-1917). He was a passionate collector. Initially, Munich residents would be invited in to his private residence once a year to marvel at his nativity collection; then, when the new museum building opened on Prinzregentenstrasse in 1900, more than 500 square metres of the space was dedicated to it. Schmederer himself largely determined how they were to be presented.

Sounds like he was very sure of himself!

You could definitely say that, but he also did a lot to promote the nativity scene collection. Schmederer would reach out to people. He generated the right publicity for the museum by having photos of himself taken, and then sending them all over the world accompanying news about the manger collection.

The international press was captivated, with talk of the new collection in Munich spreading as far as Brazil! Schmederer also gave personal tours of the collection to a number of guests of the Bavarian Prince Regent, such as the German emperor and his wife.

Schmederer also gave personal tours of the collection to a number of guests of the Bavarian Prince Regent, such as the German emperor and his wife.
Thomas Schindler

Where did Schmederer get the nativity scenes?

His collection began when he acquired a number of nativity figures originating from the monasteries in Munich. He later added Alpine crib scenes from Bavaria and Austria.

Schmederer also built up an outstanding network of antique dealers in Italy. His considerable wealth made him a valued customer, so he would be the first to know if something special came up for sale, such as the nativity scene left by the estate of the former royal family of Naples and Sicily – one of the gems of the collection to this day.

It sounds like nativity scenes used to be a privilege reserved for churches, monasteries and palaces?

That’s right. Up to the 19th century, nativity scenes would only be installed in churches, monasteries and the palaces of the nobility and the general population simply didn’t have the means. With secularisation and the liquidation of assets held by the monasteries and churches, manger scenes started to also be taken up by the middle classes. The appearance of these nativities in many homes – initially just Catholic ones – is a phenomenon that only arose after 1900, when the mass production of nativity figures began.

The appearance of these nativities in many homes – initially just Catholic ones – is a phenomenon that only arose after 1900, when the mass production of nativity figures began.
Thomas Schindler

How do the Neapolitan nativity scenes differ from the Bavarian ones, for example?

In the 18th century, the most beautiful and varied figures and scenes came from Italy – and more specifically from Naples. These would be jointed mannequins with breathtakingly realistic faces, elaborate clothing and fancy accessories, whereas the Bavarian-produced wooden figures had wax heads and limbs. Though they were also very beautiful, they were less impressive in terms of their craftsmanship and artistry.

So the Italian figures are particularly intricate?

Yes – in fact there is a specific term for the particularly loving detail that goes into the decoration of pieces in Neapolitan nativity scenes: “finimenti”. That means that the figures were designed, down to the smallest of details, in a very lifelike way, for example the Neapolitan butcher amid the sides of pork and strings of sausages.

In another scene we can see a table laid with tiny plates loaded with spaghetti al nero di seppia, while under the table we spy a cat lurking in wait for any scraps that might fall to the floor. Then, there are specific character archetypes who appear, such as the elegant lady, recognisable by her numerous brooches, necklaces and bracelets. In counterpoint there is the poor fisherman. His shirt and trousers are torn and he is smoking the long-stemmed pipe that is customary in the country.

Do Munich nativity scenes also have their own particularities?

Munich mangers tend to feature animals or groups of animals that would not typically appear in nativity scenes, for example fighting bulls, or fish which symbolise the flight into Egypt. People covered in hair and a mythical creature called a “sukkurath” are also part of the Christmas story in these nativity scenes.

Although the sukkurath – a sloth-like creature which purportedly came from Patagonia – featured in scientific reference book Brehms Tierleben until the second half of the 19th century, the animal never actually existed. It is believed that Munich’s nativity scene artists drew inspiration from the animal encyclopaedias of their era.

Do you also have some modern nativity scenes on display?

Yes, of course. They are especially popular with our visitors. During the 1970s, the museum took receipt of nativity scenes created by a number of prominent contemporary artists, including Walter Tafelmeier, Rupert Stöckl and Anton Hiller. This year we have acquired a nativity scene by the most innovative German nativity scene artist of the moment, Rudi Bannwarth, which we plan to exhibit next year. The special thing about this crib scene is that the artist takes a socially critical view and translates his attitude almost into a comic-book aesthetic.

And look at this nativity scene which is more than eight metres wide, and which was created by well-known Munich graphic artist Walter Tafelmeier for broadcaster Bayerischer Rundfunk. Doesn’t it remind you of the album cover for the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine?

Wow! It really does! Thank you very much for the interesting chat, Mr Schindler!

 

Tip: You can find an overview of other nativity exhibitions over the Christmas period and nativity scenes in the churches around Munich here.

 

 

Text: Karoline Graf; Photos: Frank Stolle, Bayerisches Nationalmuseum

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