During Christmas time, Belén are commonly seen in most Catholic and Protestant Churches, homes, and buildings. The word Belén is a Philippino term derived from the Spanish word for Bethlehem and was introduced by Spanish Fransiscans. In most towns and villages, these displays can be seen somewhere central to the town from the middle of December and are well worth a visit. Local craftspeople spend hours creating these spectacles and they are very proud of their efforts.
It was St. Francis of Assissi who introduced the three-dimensional nativity scene. According to his biographer Thomas, Assissi first used a straw-filled manger set to serve as an altar for a Christmas Mass. In 1223, he asked his friend Giovanni Velita to make a nativity scene in a cave near Greccio where he served the Christmas Eve mass. This was a living representation of the birth of Christ and included a donkey and an ox. Since then, the construction of nativity scenes has become a lasting tradition among Catholic and Protestant countries all over the world including Italy, France, Poland, Spain, Mexico and other parts of Central America.
The first Belén was created by Arnolfo di Cambio in Florence in 1289, using white marble and parts of this can still be seen today. Churches throughout Europe were decorated for the Christmas period, with many artists such as José Estévez Bonet and José Ginés Marín becoming involved. The oldest surviving Spanish Belén dates from the sixteenth century and can be found in the Monasterio de las Delcalzas Reales in Madrid. It is made of coral, bronze and silver and is known as the ‘Belen de Coral’. Carlos III had a Belén created for his son Carlos IV, which had more than 200 figures created by artists including the Murcian Salzillo. He became known as the father of the craft of the Belén and much of his work can be seen in museums in the area.
This three-dimensional art depiction of the nativity scene of Jesus Christ is normally designed around a crib or manger, but can represent a whole community. The infant Jesus in the manger surrounded by Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and their flock, and the Three Wise Men are obviously the main characters, but in many scenes there are various men and women depicted working at various rural activities. Many of these include moving parts, such as a blacksmith working on his anvil and water features such as streams and fountains often play a large part of the scene. One of the characters to look out for is the ‘crapper’! He is usually found hiding behind a building with his trousers round his ankles – not leaving much to the imagination. There are all the usual animals around, including dogs, cats, goats, sheep, cows and chickens.