‘O Come Let Us Adore Him’: Bavarian Crèches
In the south of Germany, in the storied town of Mindelheim, a remarkable testament to faith and history resides: the world’s allegedly oldest Baby Jesus figurine, housed in the Swabian Nativity Scene Museum. This tiny, sacred statue, dating back to around 1300, is more than just an artifact; it’s a tangible connection to the roots of Christian devotion in the heart of Europe.
Frederike Haber, director of the museum, shared the profound significance of this figure, which once was treasured by nuns in the convents of the Dominican and Franciscan sisters in the nearby town of Leutkirch. “It’s a humble yet priceless piece, marking the earliest known depiction of Baby Jesus in Nativity art.”
According to legend, this figure was associated with miraculous Providence, believed to have ensured a never-ending supply of bread in the convent, some 30 miles from where the figurine is now on exhibition.
The ancient figure marks the inception of a tradition that would deeply shape Christian culture. Before the widespread veneration of Baby Jesus in the 15th century, sculptors focused on realistic portrayals of the Christmas story. Over the centuries, this paved the way for the emergence of the first Nativity scenes.
The Jesuits, during the Counter-Reformation against the Protestant schism, recognized the power of these scenes in conveying the Gospel’s message. The vivid, lifelike depictions were more impactful among the populace than the messages of spoken sermons.
Far beyond the Catholic south of Germany, Nativity scenes, particularly during the 17th century, reflected not just religious devotion but also the cultural vibrancy of the era.
One colorful example is the 1618 Swabian crib of Mindelheim. The scene intricately blended the sacred narrative with contemporary Swabian life, showcasing figures in traditional costumes amidst a backdrop of local landscapes. (Swabians are native to the ethno-cultural and linguistic region of Swabia, modern Baden-Württemberg and Bavaria, in southwestern Germany.)
Despite their removal from public places during the Enlightenment, these Nativities endured, finding sanctuary in village churches and private collections. Their continued presence, especially during the Christmas season in many churches across the Alpine regions of Europe, speak to their enduring spiritual and cultural significance.
For the faithful visiting the Swabian Nativity Scene Museum, the ancient Baby Jesus figure is more than an exhibit; it’s a journey through the history of the faith, of sacred art and ancient tradition — a journey that begins with this humble yet profoundly significant piece.