All about Nativity scenes

23 December 2022

Throughout November, our huge dining table was covered with cardboard and colourful tin foil. Sometimes we skipped school. Only THEY mattered on those days.

Marek Mikos
Kraków Culture

Post-competition exhibition of Kraków Nativity Scenes

Nativity Scene Contest Exhibition

5.12.2022 – 27.02.2023

All Around Nativity Scenes

5.12.2022 – 5.02.2023

Cracovian nativity scenes are one of the most readily recognisable symbols of Kraków, alongside the Lajkonik and the hejnał bugle call resounding from the tower of the Basilica of St. Mary. They were once spoken of in hushed tones, because few people regarded them as true art. But it didn’t take long to realise that many of the dazzling colourful constructions, modelled on Kraków’s architecture, are masterpieces.
The Malik family were never in any doubt – for them, nativity scenes were always a way of life.

Early foundations

The earliest nativity scenes date back to the Middle Ages (the Convent of the Poor Clares in Kraków holds two 14th-century figurines intricately carved out of wood – the oldest signs of the tradition in the city), and they flourished in their current format at the turn of the 20th century. This was then the custom of taking nativity scenes to wealthy burghers’ houses reached peak popularity. Since it proved lucrative, the pioneers were soon joined by newcomers. The cardboard models of churches, used to recreate the nativity scene, were being made throughout the Krowodrza district, as well as in Zwierzyniec, Grzegórzki and other Cracovian suburbs.
Times were changing. The sons of tram drivers and builders who made the dazzling constructions went on to become lawyers, academics, doctors and bankers. There was no-one left to keep making nativity scenes. And so, in 1937, Dr. Jerzy Dobrzycki, devoted Cracovian and later long-time director of today’s Museum of Kraków, came up with the idea of a competition for the most beautiful nativity scene in the whole city. Apart from a break during the Second World War, the competition continues to run until the present day, and four years ago the tradition of building colourful, palatial nativity scenes was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity – the first Polish custom to achieve this status.

Young Malik girls in action

The Malik sisters, from eldest to youngest, are Weronika, Cecylia, Justyna, Rozalia, Teresa and Julia. They lived with their mother Anna and father Jan in a house at Smoleńsk Street for many years. The huge dining table mentioned by Teresa was the centre of the home and family life.
Grandfather Włodzimierz, just like his father Walenty, lived in Zwierzyniec. Both made nativity scenes, and Walenty was one of the first to revive the custom. His construction from 1923 was so beautiful that after the war it was purchased by the acclaimed stage designer Adam Kilian (born the same year as it was made!) for the Lalka Theatre in Warsaw, where it was part of the spectacle Street Carollers. In 1979, it was included in the Polish section of the Quadrennial of Performance Design and Space in Prague.
In the 1980s and 1990s, the girls frequently visited grandpa Włodzimierz and helped him in his work. After coming back from Zwierzyniec, young Teresa and her sisters wouldn’t leave their mother alone.
“I had no choice – I had to learn how to make nativity scenes so I could spend time with my daughters,” recalls Anna.
Jan looked on with growing disbelief. As more daughters came along, he was delighted while fearing the worst.

“When Rozalka was born in 1979, he yelled from his bed, ‘No more Maliks! No more nativity scenes…’.”
“Dad was of the generation who thought it was a man’s job”, says Rozalia’s younger sister Teresa.

Solid work

In the early days, nativity scenes were made by bricklayers when they had little work over the winter months – and bricklayers were men. They transferred their skills in making real churches to cardboard constructions, which needed to be strong to be carried around.
The author of each whimsical construction left their own mark, but all nativity scenes shared certain elements. They always shone in different colours, and their structures recalled Cracovian architecture. Each was topped with at least two towers (most frequently those of the Basilica of St. Mary), and there was always a gate. Another fixture was the dome of Sigismund’s Chapel, glittering with gold like its real-life counterpart.
Each nativity scene had two or more storeys. The lower storey with its wide gate held the figurines of all those who followed the Bethlehem star. The Holy Family surrounding the manger stood in the centre above. Angels stood nearby or even higher. Patriotic notes were present most of the time. This remains unchanged until the present day, although under Stalinism there were (unsuccessful) attempts to convince the authors to remove the figurines of Jesus, Mary and Joseph. Some figurines were mobile puppets, which meant that when the scenes were taken around the houses, the authors could give nativity performances.

Almost ready

Rozalia built her first nativity scene when she was six years old, Teresa when she was five. The other sisters started at similar ages and made their own figurines from plasticine and modelling clay. The wooden puppets were always brought to life by mum – a highly skilled artist and sculptor. The tradition is now only maintained by Anna and Rozalia, her fourth daughter. “Nativity scenes were always made by people who had no other work. My sisters have plenty to do, and for me it was the perfect occupation when I was bringing up a baby. My daughter is older now, but I keep getting commissions, so I keep building,” says Rozalia, mum of 11-year-old Aniela.
The family nest at Smoleńsk Street is no longer. The two ladies live and work in their new flats on the opposite sides of the city.
I visit Anna at her home in Dębniki. Her workshop is full of artworks and family memorabilia. The walls are adorned by paintings on glass made by Anna herself, while the ceiling is illuminated by a Bethlehem star. The table – the one from the family home – is covered by two huge nativity scenes. One seems to be a work in progress and is currently a basic cardboard construction. The other dazzles with different colours.
“I am modelling this one on the Norbertine Church,” says Anna, and shows me the details: the distinctive grate and architectural elements. “It’s almost ready, I just need to fix the figurines.”
The other grey construction is intended for workshops she has been running at the Museum of Kraków for many years. “The workshops are for small kids who wouldn’t be able to make their own constructions. Instead they make figurines and paint stained-glass windows.”
Anna opens a large chest to take out figurines of St. Brother Albert, devils, angels, Pan Twardowski and a witch. We look through some old photos and newer ones showing Anna’s young grandchildren – the fifth generation of nativity scene-makers who come together for family performances during the festive season. We linger over a particular photo, and Anna tells me a story.

 Art and life

Teresa confirms everything: “That’s right – it was  a performance where I expressed myself. I built a vast nativity scene which stood on the stage. I emerged in nothing but my birthday suit. That’s because nativity scenes are in me – they are in all of us sisters.”
Teresa notes that she, her sisters, mother and father (who passed away in March 2022 aged 76) are professional artists. I’m a little lost so I ask her for a summary of who’s who. She writes back: “No. 1, graphic design and painting; no. 2, artivism, painting, film; no. 3, sculpture, performance, theatre costumes, stage design; no. 4, nativity scenes, singing; no. 5, percussion, composition, performance; no. 6, cello, opera singing.” No. 4 is Rozalia, no. 5 is Teresa herself, and they are ordered by age.
Even though only Anna and Rozalia still build nativity scenes, two sisters live in Germany and the other in Norway, their art constantly reveals influence by this Cracovian classic. Their childhood passion also taught them the importance of meticulous work.
“When I was preparing a spectacle in Freiburg, the locals were amazed that I could build a precise model of my stage designs and costumes, even though I’m a composer and percussionist. Although Cecylia is an artist, performer and artivist, she’s also a nativity scene through and through.”

Wedding and balloons

Today’s artisans reach for many elements of local architecture which their predecessors overlooked. However, talking about Kraków as one great stage cannot overlook the greatest artist of Polish Modernism: the artist, printmaker, designer of stained-glass windows, creator of applied art and dramatist Stanisław Wyspiański. Written over a century ago, his great dramas unfolded in the city’s splendid historic surroundings, and the drama Acropolis is subtitled The Wawel Plays. Another play is set in the mediaeval location opposite the royal castle.
Wyspiański saw his theatre as vast, and he expanded the stage of his own imagination into Bronowice – then a village near Kraków – where he set his Wedding. He created fanciful protagonists based on real-life friends; at the end of the play, they lose themselves in a whirling, outlandish dance like clockwork puppets. The rhymed verses and scenes are short, following one another like instalments of nativity plays. Historians of literature describe the masterpiece of Polish drama as having a nativity play format.
The Cracovian tradition has been inspiring many artists from myriad genres. In theatre, there is Lucjan Rydel’s Polish Bethlehem and Leon Schiller’s Pastorale, and Kraków’s legendary Green Balloon cabaret gave it a satirical twist over a century ago. Their puppets are masterpieces of Polish Modernism. The legend of the Green Balloon was recalled by the Jama Michalika cabaret between the 1960s and 1990s at a café of the same name at 45 Floriańska Street – the café is still there today.
The invaluable heritage gave birth to the artistic activities of the Malik family, breaking down old boundaries of the genre. The family also maintains the tradition of taking their nativity scenes to people’s homes, having travelled as far as London. During the festive season, the Maliks join forces to visit the Krzysztofory Palace. They perform a nativity play with original words by Walenty Malik. The lineup certainly includes Rozalia (keyboards, vocals, puppet voices), cousin Andrzej – son of nativity scene-maker Stanisław Malik and architect (vocals, puppet voices), Cecylia (fiddle, vocals), and of course Anna – without her the play couldn’t happen, because she makes the puppets. They are supported with the youngest generation. There’s always Rozalia’s daughter Aniela, and perhaps Cecylia’s daughter Urszulka on accordion. Kostek and Kirył may visit from Germany – I met them when I visited Anna in early November.

Finally, the competition!

“I have a large two-sided nativity scene. Come in the morning or before dusk ¬– that’s when light shines best through the stained-glass windows,” Rozalia says on the phone when we are arranging to meet.
When I arrive at her small flat just after All Saints’ Day, my jaw drops through the floor. Even though I’ve grown up in this tradition in the Krowodrza district, I’ve never seen anything like it. It’s not that the nativity scene is in the home – the entire home is in the nativity scene. “It’s flaming gothic – that’s what I named my style, and it stuck,” Rozalia says smiling. And this soaring temple truly seems to be aflame. Rozalia brings me back to earth: “I cut out these bits with a jigsaw.” I ask about the materials. “Wood, sheet metal and plexiglass. Real glass would be impractical.” Rozalia finds most of her materials out and about. Thin planking is particularly versatile, as are abandoned bits of machinery and general scraps. She takes them under her wing and gives them a new lease of life.
“That’s right, these are the towers of the Basilica of St. Mary. They’re perfect because they have a star cross-section. In the middle? No, that’s not the dome of Sigismund’s Chapel, it just looks like it.”
Rozalia and Anna aren’t taking part in this year’s competition, but they are still anxious and excited. They have both been commissioned to create large free-standing constructions to be displayed in the city space by KBF and the Museum of Kraków, organisers of the Around Nativity Scenes project. Time is pressing – the deadline for submitting nativity scenes is 15 November.
When the authors present their fragile palaces on the steps of the Adam Mickiewicz statue on the Rynek Główny in December, they will also be awaiting the verdict anxiously. And they’ll be starting to think ahead to next autumn when they’ll be building Kraków out of cardboard, wood, metal sheeting, coloured tin foil and dreams once again.



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