The first known nativity scene figurines are on display this Christmas in one of Rome’s oldest basilicas.
The underground Chapel of the Nativity in the Basilica of St. Mary Major — known to Italians as Santa Maria Maggiore — once contained at least six marble nativity statues sculpted by Arnolfo di Cambio in the late 13th century.
From Dec. 22, the public will be able to view these nativity figurines in the Marian basilica’s Sistine chapel, located to the right of the main altar.
The figurines were commissioned in 1292 by Pope Nicholas IV, the first Franciscan pope, who was inspired by St. Francis of Assisi, creator of the first living nativity in Greccio, Italy, in 1223.
Sante Guido, an art historian and professor at the Pontifical Gregorian University, told EWTN that five of the marble statues in the nativity scene today are completely original to the 13th century.
This means that this nativity scene was present when St. Cajetan experienced an apparition of the Child Jesus in the Chapel of the Nativity on Christmas night in 1517 and when St. Ignatius of Loyola chose to offer his first Mass in this chapel in 1538.
It is unclear how many figures in total made up the nativity scene commissioned by Nicholas IV, but the marble figures that exist today of St. Joseph, the three Magi, and a single work depicting both a cow and a donkey are part of the original set, according to Guido.
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