Dazzling City

6 December 2021

The Museum of Krakow showcases Cracovian nativity scenes – old and new, viewed from the outside and in!

The post-competition exhibition of Cracovian nativity scenes returns to the Krzysztofory Palace after a four-year break. The details of the works and how they fit in Krzysztofory’s renovated space remain a tightly-guarded secret until the last minute. Every year, on the first Thursday of December, nativity-scene makers gather on the steps of the Adam Mickiewicz monument to reveal the results of their painstaking work, which is then assessed by a jury. Three days later, all fans of the dazzling constructions made of cardboard and colourful tin foil can feast their eyes at the exhibition at the Museum of Krakow.

All Around Nativity Scenes, photo by Edyta Dufaj

In 2018, the Cracovian tradition of making nativity scenes was added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list. The custom continues to thrive within a community for whom building nativity scenes and participating in the competition is an important part of their identity. At the Intangible Heritage Interpretation Centre of Krakow (branch of the Museum of Krakow), we will meet representatives of the community of constructors and engage in activities aiming to protect and develop the tradition; by working with the community, the City Council and the City Office we have launched a programme allocating creative studios to nativity-scene makers.

Cracovian traditions of nativity scenes have been evolving just as the city itself. Early nativity scenes likely arrived in Kraków in the 13th century with continuators of the mission of St Francis of Assisi – creator of the original nativity scene. Kraków oldest nativity figurines, dating back to the mid-14th century, are held at the Convent of the Poor Clares at Grodzka Street. When they were first presented at churches, they were mainly the subject of devotion. During the centuries that followed, new characters started arriving – not just biblical but also recalling present-day events. The figurines were set in motion and given voiceovers. Cracovian nativity plays featured characters such as Pan Twardowski, noblemen, Cossacks and padres. Their witty dialogue (perhaps first started by Kraków’s inventive students) scandalised viewers so much that by 1780 the curia banned them from churches. Nativity plays moved to inns and private homes, where they were staged – for good money! – by boys from stonemason families from Krowodrza, Zwierzyniec and Grzegórzki.

Kajetan Wincenty Kielisiński, Cracovian Nativity Scene, 1832–834, property of teh Museum of Krakow

The settings for the figurines also became larger and more elaborate: they were based around a tower with a dome in the centre and two storeys, the lower of which served as a stage. The template of Cracovian nativity scenes is believed to be a construction by Michał Ezenekier, a stonemason from Krowodrza. Made around 1890, its side towers are clearly inspired by the turret of the taller tower of the Basilica of St Mary. The nativity scene is now on display at the Ethnographic Museum. Sadly, not long after this iconic scene was built, the custom of visiting homes to perform Christmas plays started dying out. Cracovians preferred to head out to the cinema or theatre, for example to see Lucjan Rydel’s nativity play Polish Bethlehem performed by professional actors, instead of welcoming jolly amateurs into their homes.

The custom of nativity-scene making might have fallen into oblivion had it not been for the initiative of Dr. Jerzy Dobrzycki who organised the first Kraków Nativity Scenes Contest in 1937. The participants were mainly local labourers – mostly men, but women were involved with the competition from the start. The jury focused on the architecture, colours and technique of each construction. The silent figurines which have always been at the centre of Cracovian nativity scenes started to take a step back to give way to the increasingly elaborate architecture combining myriad styles. The reinvented tradition survived the Second World War, and the contest – relaunched in 1945 – was taken over by the Historical Museum. In the following decades, Cracovian nativity scenes became one of the city’s symbols, recognised the world over. Mechanised and illuminated constructions gradually entered the canon. The skill was passed down generations of families, with leading names including Malik, Gillert, Głuch, Paczyński-Czyż, Dłużniewski and Markowski. A few months ago we said farewell to Tadeusz Gillert who was involved with the contest since 1948 and passed on the tradition to his sons and other apprentices.

Tadeusz Gillertin his studio, 2012, photo by the Museum of Krakow

Over the years, the constructions have been assessed by a jury comprising acclaimed artists such as Witold Chomicz, Franciszek Mączyński, Zygmunt Nowakowski, Roman Reinfuss, Jerzy Turowicz, Wiktor Zin, Jerzy Wyrozumski and Anna Szałapak. Their influence on the custom has been so great that one of the rooms in the renovated Krzysztofory Palace has been dedicated to them. The jury conference room is a space of living memory, commemorating former jurors and welcoming the latest judges for their deliberations.

Dr. Jerzy Dobrzycki assessing nativity scenes, 1966, photo by Józef Korzeniowski, Museum of Krakow

Another renovated room at the Krzysztofory Palace resembles the interior of a nativity scene. Visitors become figurines standing among towers, stained glass, columns, gateways and arcades, all dazzling with different colours of tin foil. The life-sized nativity scene is a real dream-come-true! The room has been designed and decorated by around a dozen celebrated nativity-scene makers.

Construction of the life-size nativity scene at the Krzysztofory Palace, photo by Marcin Gulis, Museum of Krakow

This year’s events kick off at 10am on 2 December with a presentation of nativity scenes at the Main Market Square. Accompanied by the hejnał bugle call at noon, the constructors set off in a colourful procession to the Krzysztofory Palace where their nativity scenes are assessed by the jury of the 79th Kraków Nativity Scenes Contest. The results are expected on 5 December, and the post-contest exhibition opens on 6 December.

This year nativity scenes once again enter the city space. The project “All Around Nativity Scenes”, prepared by the Museum of Krakow and KBF, brings the colourful constructions to almost thirty sites all over the city. The locations follow a walking route themed on the 1920s and Cracovian avantgarde. A tour led by Dr. Michał Niezabitowski, director of the Museum of Krakow, is planned for 6 January 2022. (Dr. Andrzej Iwo Szoka)

Dr. Andrzej Iwo Szoka
A historian and curator. He leads the Intangible Heritage Interpretation Centre of Krakow and organises the Lajkonik parade. He is the author of a number of publications on Kraków’s history and traditions.

Dr. Andrzej Iwo Szoka, photo by Marcin Gulis

The text was published in the 4/2021 issue of the “Kraków Culture” quarterly.

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