Friday, December 30, 2011

An Automaton Nativity Scene

After a hearty Christmas meal (or three days later, depending on how well your stomach handles the twelve obligatory courses) it's time to take a walk.  If you're in Warsaw, head to the Old Town, where, even on a snowless winter, everything looks magical and festive. As I already mentioned, one of the traditions is to visit the many churches in that historical part of town in order to see the various Nativity scenes.

But if you only visit one, it should be the automaton Nativity at the Capuchin Church on Miodowa Street.

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene
The Nativity in its full glory. Upper right: the Holy Family, left: the Pope and Vatican. Far right: Old Town Warsaw.

The Capuchins are a jolly bunch, being part of the Order of Friars Minor- Franciscans, those most humble of monks. And quite creative, too. It was St. Francis who invented the creche, or nativity scene, and Capuchins all over the world follow well in his tradition every Christmas.

But the nativity on Miodowa street is quite special. In 1948, so very shortly after the War that left Warsaw in ruins, brothers Pius Janowski and Konrad Wyczawski began to build their famous mechanical Nativity. The baroque church itself was not yet fully rebuilt. Originally constructed in 1683 by King Jan III Sobieski expressly for the newly-introduced Capuchins, it had been burned not once but twice during that war, once in 1939, and once in 1944.

In fact, Old Town Warsaw as it is depicted in the Nativity stands rebuilt, proud and colourful, but at the forefront are ruins, with a soldier in the broken window, aiming his rifle, and in the street, the figure of a young scout insurgent, his helmet too large for his brow, holding a sealed message- or perhaps a grenade.

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

Although the mechanism, once set in motion by hand, now runs on electricity and has recently been fitted with low-energy LED lighting, all of the original characters and decor have been preserved. A sneaky look behind the scenes reveals a complicated system of tracks, wheels, pulleys and levers which make the horses prance and the musicians play.

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

Each character is double-sided, as it moves along a looped track that winds all through the set, and so must be presentable from all angles. A closer look dates the automatons well- the painted clothes are a memory of the fourties, the horse-drawn wagon a reminder of how, not so long ago, even a short journey could be as harsh as a pilgrimage.

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

But not far behind rides the founder of the church, King Jan Sobieski, followed by two winged hussars- the legendary romantic ideal of Polish cavalry.

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

Although my favourites were always the camels.

The Capuchin mechanical nativity scene

This Nativity has a definite patriotic theme, with a parade of characters important to Polish history peeking out from behind the buildings. They change and vary from year to year. Last Christmas, just  after we lost ninety six of our countrymen, including the Presidential Pair, in a plane crash, the monks placed a model of the destroyed airplane in the foreground.

The Nativity can be viewed every day from 10 am til 6 pm, from Christmas Day until February 2nd. Admission is free, but there is a collection box and gift shop. The proceeds go, of course, to the upkeep and renovation of the Nativity.

Below is a short video of the mechanism in motion. :)

Meta information:

Wikipedia entry on Capuchin church in Warsaw (Polish only)

Wikipedia entry on the Order of Friars Minor

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