Crib (Heb. ARUT; Gr., phatne; Lat. prcesepe, prcesepium), the crib or manger in which the infant Savior was laid after his birth is properly that place in the stable or khan where food for domestic animals is put, formed probably of the same material out of which the grotto itself is hewn. A very ancient tradition avers that an ass and an ox were in the stable when Christ was born. The tradition bears an allusion to Isaias (i, 3): “The ox knoweth his owner and the ass his master’s crib”; and is probably founded on the words of the Prophet Habacuc (iii, 2) which in the Septuagint version read: “In the midst of two animals thou shalt be known”, instead of “In the midst of years” etc. as St. Jerome rightly translated the original Hebrew. Be this as it may, what pertains to the crib we may consider in the present article under three separate headings: (I) The Basilica of the Nativity and the Grotto of the Nativity at Bethlehem; (II) The relics of the crib preserved at St. Mary Major’s in Rome; (III) Devotion to the crib.
I. Bethlehem is situated on two hills and is 2361 feet above the level of the sea. The western hill is the Bethlehem of Scripture; whilst on the eastern elevation is situated the Basilica of the Nativity erected over the grotto. We may imagine, then, that the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, there being “no room for them in the inn”, left the town and came to the cave or stable on the eastern hill which served as a place of refuge for shepherds and their flocks against the inclemency of the weather. We are not concerned here with the controversies both as regards the historicity of St. Luke’s narrative of the birth of Christ and as regards the actual site of the Grotto of the Nativity. Suffice it to say that there appears to be no sufficient reason for abandoning the very ancient and unbroken tradition which attests the authenticity of the place of the crib now venerated. From the earliest times, moreover, ecclesiastical writers bear witness to this tradition. Thus St. Justin, who died a martyr in 165, says that “Having failed to find any lodging in the town, Joseph sought shelter in a neighboring cavern of Bethlehem” (Dial. c. Tryph., 70). About half a century later, Origen writes: “If any one desires to satisfy himself without appealing either to the prophecy of Micheas, or to the history of the Christ as written by his diciples, that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, let him know that, in accordance with the Gospel narrative, at Bethlehem is shown the grotto where he first saw the light” (C. Cels. I, 51).
St. Helena first converted the grotto into a chapel and adorned it with costly marble and other precious ornaments. The first basilica erected over the crypt is due most probably to the devotion and munificence of her son Constantine, of whom Eusebius says that “The emperor himself, eclipsing even the magnificence of his mother’s design, adorned the same place in a truly regal style” (Vita Const., III, 43). Both the grotto itself and the basilica have undergone numerous restorations and modifications made necessary in the course of centuries by the ravages of war and invasion; but, at the present time, little remains of the splendid mosaics and paintings described in detail by Quaresimus and other writers. The Crypt of the Nativity is reached from the upper church by a double flight of stairs leading from the north side of the choir of the basilica to the grotto below, and converging at the place where according to tradition the Infant Savior was born. The exact spot is marked by a star cut out of stone, surrounding which are the words:
HIC DE VIRGINE MARIA JESUS CHRISTUS NATUS EST.
A short distance to the southwest is the manger itself where Christ was laid and where, as tradition asserts, he was adored by the Magi. In 1873 the grotto was plundered by the Greeks and everything of value, including two paintings by Murillo and Maello respectively, was carried off. No restitution of the stolen treasures has since been made.
II. The relics of the crib that are preserved at St. Mary Major’s in Rome were probably brought there from the Holy Land during the pontificate of Pope Theodore (640-649), who was himself a native of Palestine, and who was well aware of the dangers of plunder and pillage to which they were exposed at the hands of the Mussulmans and other marauders. We find at all events that the basilica erected by Liberius on the Esquiline first received the name of Sancta Maria ad Praesepe under Pope Theodore. During the pontificate of Hadrian I the first altar was erected in the basilica, and in the course of succeeding centuries the place where the relics are preserved came to be visited by the devout faithful from all parts of the Christian world. At the present time the remains of the crib preserved at St. Mary Major’s consist of five pieces of board which, as a result of the investigation conducted by Father Lais, sub-director of the Vatican Observatory, during the restorations of 1893 were found to be taken from a sycamore tree of which there are several varieties in the Holy Land. Two of the pieces, which like the other three, must have been originally much longer than they are at present, stood upright in the form of an X, upon which three other pieces rested, supported by a sixth piece, which, however, is missing, placed across the base of the upper angle of the X. We may conclude from this that these pieces of wood were properly speaking mere supports for the manger itself, which was probably made from the soft limestone of which the cave was formed. The rich reliquary, adorned with bas-reliefs and statuettes, which at present contains the relics of the crib was presented by the Duchess of Villa Hermosa in 1830. Pius IV (1559-65) restored the high altar upon which the relics are solemnly exposed for the veneration of the faithful yearly on the eve of Christmas.
III. Devotion to the crib is no doubt of very ancient origin; but it remained for St. Francis of Assisi to popularize it and to give it the tangible form in which it is known at the present time. When St. Francis visited Rome in 1223, he made known to Pope Honorius III the plans he had conceived of making a scenic representation of the place of the Nativity. The pope listened gladly to the details of the project and gave it his sanction. Leaving Rome, St. Francis arrived at Greccio on Christmas Eve, when, through the aid of his friend Giovanni Velita, he constructed a crib and grouped around it figures of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, the ass, the ox, and the shepherds who came to adore the new-born Savior. He acted as deacon at the midnight Mass. The legend relates that having sung the words of the Gospel “and they laid him in a manger” he knelt down to meditate briefly on the sub-lime mystery of the Incarnation, and there appeared in his arms a child surrounded by a brilliant light. A painting by Giotto representing St. Francis celebrating Christmas at Greccio is preserved in the Basilica of St. Francis at Assisi. Devotion to the crib has since spread throughout the Christian world. Yearly, from the eve of Christmas until the day of the octave of Epiphany, a crib representing the birthplace of Christ is shown in all Catholic churches in or’ er to remind the faithful of the mystery of the Incarnation and to recall according to tradition and the Gospel narrative the historical events connected with the birth of the Redeemer. The old Franciscan church of Ara Coeli possesses perhaps one of the largest and most beautiful cribs in the world. In this crib the famous Santo Bambino di Ara Coeli is exposed from the eve of Christmas to the feast of the Epiphany. The Santo Bambino is a figure carved out of wood representing the new-born Savior. It is said to have come from the Holy Land, and in the course of time it has been bedecked with numerous jewels of great value. It is carried in procession yearly on the feast of the Epiphany by the Minister General of the Friars Minor who solemnly blesses the city with it from the top of the high flight of stairs that lead to the main entrance of Ara Coeli.
STEPHEN M. DONOVAN