A Christmas Crib as a Meek Heart of the Late Mediaeval Christian
By Iris Ippel
The Rijksmuseum Bulletin, Vol.62 (2014)
Abstract: In the summer of 2013 the Rijksmuseum acquired a rare Late Gothic Christmas Crib (c. 1510-20). In the 15th century tangible aids – devotionalia – were promoted to support meditation, to accomplish as it were a link between God and the soul of the believer. Cribs were able to fulfil such a function.
Introduction: In the summer of 2013 the Rijksmuseum acquired a rare Late Gothic Christmas crib. Not many of these medieval votive objects have survived, and those that have are usually simple. Only eight Christmas cribs possess the monumentality and artistic refinement of this acquisition, which can be considered to be of the type known as Gestellhängewiege. In this type the little bed or crib hangs in an open porch-like structure, so that it actually can be rocked.
The oak crib consists of a rectangular, box-shaped base with scalloped corners which rests on four reclining lions. This base is embellished all round with metselrie, open Gothic tracery. On it stand two triangular uprights, which meet at the top in a Gothic arch with pinnacles from which hangs a crib that can be moved to and fro. In it lay a Jesus doll. The bed itself is also decorated on the long sides with ﬁne Gothic tracery, while the head-board and footboard are crowned by an arch with pinnacles. Originally tiny silver bells attached to the underside of the bed tinkled when the crib was rocked. The Rijksmuseum’s example’s bells have been lost, but a number of similar cribs still have them. Their sound represented the angels’ singing heard at Christ’s nativity. Little figures of angels may even have been placed in the tiny holes in the pinnacles of the crib, like those found in the corner posts of a some what larger crib from the Great Beguinage in Louvain. It also served to ward off evil: according to an old superstition, bells should be hung on children’s beds to frustrate evil spirits and demons.
The complicated metselrie work, with elegant, interwoven arches carved in the hard and quite coarse oak with great skill, calls for further research into its design and execution. The geometrical structure of the Gothic tracery contributed to the mediaeval user’s pleasure in contemplating the piece, as a recent study has shown. The geometry of the design may moreover have pointed to a higher order, accentuating the holiness of the object. The actual act of devotion – rocking the crib – and the design vocabulary serve a single objective: a ‘divine’ or ‘heavenly’ experience.