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The nativity crib as an expression of popular revolution

In Zillertal, it has a very special significance! 200 years ago, the Emperor of Austria attempted to ban the nativity crib, but the people in Zillertal found a way to thwart this plan. Today, we can therefore trace the cribs’ history by visiting Jürgen Gradwohl, the local priest in the parish of Mayrhofen.

At the end of the 18th century, the reigning emperor in Austria was Joseph II. He was certainly no fan of the artistic nativity cribs which decorated Austria’s churches before Christmas every year in remembrance of the birth of Jesus. Jürgen Gradwohl, the local priest in Mayrhofen, explains that these hand-crafted works of art were particularly resented by the emperor. Why was this? The emperor thought the figures were too childish.

For this reason, he banished the nativity cribs from all the churches in Austria by imperial decree. But, even in those days, the people in Zillertal refused to let anybody mess about with their religion – not even the emperor. The parishioners were quick to find a solution and made their own, smaller cribs which they could set up at home. Thanks to the emperor, the nativity crib shifted from the churches into the private houses.

“The crazier and more unusual a
crib, the more it fascinates me. ”

Jürgen Gradwohl, Mayrhofen priest

Infected with the “crib virus”

Nowadays, nativity cribs are back at home in the churches. For many years now, Jürgen Gradwohl (aged 50), the parish priest in Mayrhofen, has exhibited his continuously growing collection (1 December until 2 February). During Advent, he lovingly presents his treasures and even changes the scenes every week, thereby recounting the Christmas story through the figures in his cribs. The nativity crib impressively transports the events of Christmas and the incarnation of Christ into the present day. As he emphasises: “The nativity cribs visualise the message of Christmas. They are a living tradition!” And when we consider their history, we can say that the nativity crib in Zillertal is an expression of popular revolution.

This is particularly true of the special works of art collected by this local priest. They are curious and never commonplace. Some are small, others large. Robust, delicate. But one detail links them all: the Christ child is always the central figure. All the surrounding happenings are subject to the creativity of the artist concerned. A nativity crib can fill a whole room and consist of hundreds of biblical figures, or it can merely show the holy family. Generally speaking, large baroque nativity cribs are the most sought-after, due to their fine, artistic woodcarving. However, these are very rare. “That’s why I just let the cribs find me”, says Jürgen Gradwohl, “and I keep my eyes open whenever I travel”. “The crazier it is, the more it fascinates me”. Recently he purchased a modern nativity crib at a Christmas market in Seville. The figures are modelled in clay and depict Mary and Joseph, Jesus and even an ox and a donkey driving around on a motor scooter.

Jürgen Gradwohl was infected by the “crib virus” at his priestly ordination, when he was presented with his first nativity crib. Since this day, his aim has been to light the spark of faith by visualising it through hand craftsmanship. He looks forward to greeting all interested visitors and “infecting” them with this completely harmless “nativity crib virus”.

Image:Carlos Blanchard and text: Johannes Stühlinger
Zillertal magazine Winter 2019/20


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