The characters in Arnolfo di Cambio’s nativity scene in the Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore, Rome, have the moving beauty of simplicity. The streamlined medieval figures sculpted by the Tuscan architect (ca. 1240 – ca. 1310) for Pope Nicholas IV – the first Franciscan pontiff in history – show a subdued attitude that is almost touching. They silently witness the miracle of God coming into the world as a child, and quietly tell this story to anyone looking.
Pope Nicholas was fond of nativities – after all, they were invented by Francis of Assisi, who set up the first ever living nativity scene in 1223, in Greccio –, and commissioned this work to honor the relics kept in the beautiful Liberian Basilica. The boards of the manger in which Jesus was placed on Christmas night, indeed, are still in the crypt under the central altar – and that is the reason why this church on top of the Esquiline Hill is also known as “Sancta Maria ad Praesepe”.
Arnolfo – whose famous Roman works include the pyx in the Basilica of Saint Paul and the one in Saint Cecilia’s in the Trastevere ‘rione’ – sculpted these figures in 1291. Over the centuries, some of them have probably been altered, and their original placement is unknown. Until recently, the Madonna with Child was thought to be an addition dating to the 1500s, but its originality has now been confirmed (although the front was probably retouched in the 16th century).
The eight statues in Arnolfo’s Nativity – the Madonna with Child at the center, Saint Joseph leaning on his walking stick, the heads of the oxen and the donkey, and the three Wise Men, one of them kneeling – are now showcased in the Basilica’s Museum.
And after over seven centuries, they continue to quietly tell the simple and wonderful story of God becoming man.