Cracovian Nativity Scenes – Fairytale and Reality

8 December 2023

In December 2022, I went to the exhibition of nativity scenes at the Krzysztofory Palace and I was immediately drawn to the construction by Tomasz Dobosz. At first glance its format was pretty standard – three slender towers covered with metallic foil, figurines, lighting, distinctive Cracovian architecture. But that’s not what caught my attention. The nativity scene was entirely made in blue and gold with the Ukrainian trident superimposed on the structure; the top storey windows were smashed in and coated with smoke, and the Holy Family was taking refuge in the cellar.

Filip Fotomajczyk

Such a political take is something close to my heart – for many years, our nativity scenes have been to me far more than just ephemeral constructions of folk origins. More than anything, they are a medium for commenting on our surroundings: I myself have made rainbow and environmentally-themed nativity scenes, and even one in the form of a shadow.

In the 19th century, craftsmen from near Kraków took on building nativity scenes when they were low on work in winter, and took them from house to house to tell the nativity story. Their constructions were a fairytale version of the city enchanted in a portable, dazzling building. The story has now come full circle – although today’s nativity scenes are mainly made for the competition, in recent years they have returned to Kraków’s streets as part of the All Around Nativity Scenes project. During the festive season, Kraków’s public spaces such as streets and squares, as well as shop and restaurant windows, proudly display nativity scenes selected from the collection of the Museum of Krakow or specially commissioned by the City of Kraków. But where did the idea come from?

In 2018, the Cracovian nativity scene tradition was added to the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. The list aims to preserve phenomena and customs existing in our imaginations and passed down orally for future generations – just like the UNESCO World Heritage Site list protects material legacy. The Museum of Krakow hosts the annual Kraków Nativity Scene Contest, and it supports the depositaries of the city’s non-material heritage: the makers of the intricate constructions which frequently take hundreds or even thousands hours to make.

Today, the tradition – just like society itself – is very different than it was just a few decades ago. Competition between individuals is gradually being replaced by the community becoming more integrated, and secrets of nativity scene-making are revealed at artistic workshops. I am delighted to host such events for young artists – and I am delighted that so many of them are women. The art of translating one’s fascination with Kraków into a small, fairytale construction is a unique passion which requires vast amounts of work and many artistic skills: from drawing design sketches, via making and decorating the main parts, lighting and any moving elements, to modelling figurines and developing one’s own story about the city.

Whenever I think about what kind of nativity scene I am going to make this year (and it’s something I’ve been thinking about since about the age of 13), I no longer focus on the classical canon or favourite architecture I would like to include. Instead, I consider issues which move me to tell more people about them. Although at my masterclasses I teach young artists about the canonical version of the nativity scenes, I never forget to explain that as well as choosing colours, symmetries and Cracovian architecture, they must think about how they present their personal vision of Kraków of the 21st century.

Filip Fotomajczyk

Kraków Nativity Scene Contest 2013, photo from the author’s archive
Graduate from the Fryderyk Chopin Secondary School of Music and music studies at the Inter-faculty Individual Studies in the Humanities at the Jagiellonian University. Since 2004, he has been awarded 17 prizes in the Kraków Nativity Scene Contest, including the Jerzy Dobrzycki Prize (2016) and Anna Szałapak Prize (2021) for continuing the tradition and other artistic achievements. He received a Creative Grant from the City of Kraków in 2019. As a city guide, he runs urban games and workshops in Kraków and talks about nativity scene-making traditions.

The text was published in the 4/2023 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.

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