It’s hard to imagine celebrating Christmas without a nativity scene–and yet the first depiction of the Holy Family in the stable of Bethlehem, surrounded by adoring shepherds and the three Kings, was created by St. Francis of Assisi back in the 13th century. This means that no nativity scene in existence could be more than 800 years old.
Here in Rome, we’ve got the oldest known nativity scene in the world, sculpted by the great Arnolfo di Cambio in 1291. It certainly isn’t the most ornate scene you’ll ever find; in fact, simplicity is perhaps its most striking feature. But we’re sure you’ll agree that its plain, clean lines give it a beauty that is probably closer to The Real Thing than so many of the gilded, frilly nativities that are more common today. After all, in actuality Mary and Joseph were dressed simply, and the stable was the epitome of poverty!
Ironically, di Cambio’s style wasn’t considered so “classic” at the time. On the contrary, what this sculptor was producing here in Rome was actually kind of outdated, as art goes. Arnolfo had brought with him to Rome styles of tomb-carving and altar-adornment which he had learned from French artists, who had made them trendy a generation before. But by the time di Cambio was reproducing these types of artworks for the Eternal City, they were already passe’. Imagine a hair stylist today, cutting the Dorothy-Hamill haircuts that had been so “in” back in the 1970’s, and you’ll get a clearer idea of how Arnolfo di Cambio’s work fit into the artistic world at the time.
But unlike hairstyles, good sculpture never goes out of fashion! Arnolfo’s outdated nativity scene has withstood the test of time, and then some. Today it is lovingly maintained in the museum-treasury of one of Rome’s largest basilicas, a museum that most tourists don’t even know exists. We’ll be happy to take you to see it, and let you stand before the oldest known nativity scene on earth–and we bet you’ll agree that “newer” isn’t necessarily “better.”