David E Norris marvels at the dazzingly inventive cribs which are carried through the Polish city on the first Thursday in December Are you one of those people who believe that craftsmanship is dead? If you are, then you need to visit the city of Kraków, especially on the first Thursday in December.
There, right in the middle of the market square, stands a statue of the Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. It is a popular meeting place throughout the year, but on that day it becomes the rendezvous point for a unique breed of craftsmen and women, namely the town’s model-makers. They start arriving with their creations as early as eight o’clock in the morning. By 10 o’clock there is usually a crowd scrimmaging to register their work which will have been made amid great secrecy over the course of the year. Some are large; others tiny, some are carried by two people and some even arrive on trolleys like fragments from a Gothic altarpiece. Around 11 o’clock swarms of schoolchildren descend along with their teachers to show off their glittering entries.
The climax occurs on the stroke of mid-day when the distinctive bugle call echoes from the multi-turreted church tower. That’s the signal for the Kraków Christmas crib procession to set off. It is always headed by the standard bearer holding aloft a brightly coloured revolving star which is the emblem of the carollers, a guild of craftsmen who developed this spectacular craft over 200 years ago.
Between 120 and 160 precious artefacts are carried in triumph through the covered way of the ancient cloth hall before snaking across the market square to Krzysztofory Mansion which acts as the history museum.
There, the models are handed over to a panel of judges who have the onerous task of selecting the models to go on show in three days time. It’s a nail-biting wait. Gazing at the exhibits last year, I could appreciate the clever use of tiny puppets, the amusing use of moving parts and most of all the cacophony of colour, but I sensed that I only understood the half of it. Here was a rich culture that had evolved over 200 years and was still developing. Cribs, of course have adorned churches from the dawn of Christianity. Pope Liberius erected a model of the stable in Bethlehem inside the basilica Santa Maria Ad Praesepe in Rome in 360 BC. But it was not until the 17th century that secular characters began to appear in a crib scene. Some had simple moving characters. These were, no doubt, influenced by puppet theatres which were spreading across Europe from their origins in France. They certainly had an influence in Poland because itinerant cribs – a kind of mobile puppet theatre – became popular around Kraków. The models that I was gazing at in the exhibition, with their Nativity scenes nestling in a balcony on the first floor and other puppet figures spread along the ground floor were direct descendants of that genre.
In the latter half of the 19th century it was the fashion in Kraków for groups of “carollers” with puppet shows to perform in private houses. They were for the most part carpenters, builder’s assistants and bricklayers, underemployed in winter and in search of extra cash. At Christmas time they would set out their large constructions, which could be up to six feet high, in the market square and tout for business.That was when they set up the first crib-makers’ guild.
The heyday of the puppet crib makers ended with the advent of the First World War and it was feared that the tradition of cribmaking would be lost forever but they need not have worried.
Poland has had a very chequered history. There has been a succession of invasions and each one seemed to bring a form of cultural oppression, but none of them reckoned with the creative evolution of the guild. Some of the crib masters began to build smaller cribs in their homes and a distinctive style evolved. These cribs would be up to 16 inches tall. They would each incorporate two or three towers topped with a pinnacle, often modelled on the church towers that made up the skyline of Kraków. Invariably that included the bugle call tower on St Mary’s.
At first they were painted in gold and silver. Then there were models adorned with pieces of stained glass and cellophane. When illuminated models appeared in the 1950s mechanical moving parts would not be far behind and, sure enough, they have become more and more elaborate. Recently the architectural motifs have changed to incorporate other parts of Kraków including the barbican gate, but the Nativity scene remains inviolate.
The search for originality seems unrelenting but the skill level never drops and the reason is very simple. Each year at least one model is kept to be placed in a permanent collection. This simple device makes it possible to see examples of models stretching back to the year 1900. It makes crib makers conscious of their heritage; it makes them strive to maintain the levels of craftsmanship and it perpetuates a unique skill.
If ever a place were thought of as the spiritual home of the Blue Peter ethic – that of making models out of the most unlikely material – then Kraków and its legion of crib makers would qualify.