22 December 2013
Art for Advent (22): Presepe in Duomo
dei San Filippo e Giacomo, Sorrento
In our Gospel reading this morning, the Fourth Sunday of Advent (22 December 2013), we read Saint Matthew’s account of the Nativity (Matthew 1: 18-25), and the fourth and final candle on the Advent Wreath which is lit this morning, is a reminder of the Virgin Mary.
My choice of a work of Art for Advent this morning is the Presepe or diorama, the traditional nativity scene in the Cathedral in Sorrento, the Duomo dei San Filippo e Giacomo.
Although Christmas in Italy has become more-and-more commercialised and internationalised each year, it is not all that long ago since the main Christmas decorations were limited to the traditional presepio or presepe, or nativity scene, which reached an high level of intricate detail in recent decades.
The tradition of recreating the Nativity with a presepio (the word literally means crib) dates back to the 13th century.
These nativity scenes are examples of Italian rustic art, and are often very elaborate affairs, and feature scenes conflated from the first Christmas alongside imaginative scenes from 19th century towns and villages. They often have hundreds of hand-made figures, individually and lovingly crafted, including artisans in traditional costumes working at their trades and merchants and bankers at their stalls and tables carrying out their daily business.
The manufacturers now even make figures of celebrities, sports stars and politicians to place in the presepio along with the traditional characters. In some places, you may see Barack Obama or Silvio Berlusconi among the shepherds.
Each church erects elaborate Nativity displays with these hand-carved miniatures depicting scenes from the Christmas story and every-day old town scenes. Many families also have one in their home and shops sell complete stable scenes, or the figures to make your own, in the weeks before Christmas.
In Sorrento, the Christmas celebrations still focus on the Nativity, with many events and concerts. During December, the churches in Sorrento have had their presepio or nativity scene on display. However, in the duomo or cathedral, it seems as it is forever Christmas, for the large presepio just inside the main doors is on display all year.
The cathedral, dedicated to the apostles Saint Philip and Saint James, stands halfway along the Corso Italia in the heart of Sorrento. It was first built in the 11th century was rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 15th century, and has a marble altar, pulpit and throne dating from the 16th century, and a pair of 12th century doors from Constantinople.
The cathedral, which I visited a few times this year, is best known for its collection of 17th-century art, including paintings by Giacomo del Po and Oronzo Malinconico. The Italian poet Torquato Tasso was baptised in the baptistery which has been restored.
Tomorrow: ‘Ten Saints’ by Giovanni D’Angelo D’Amato.