We have no contemporary eye-witness accounts of the first Christmas. Still, quite a few of the nativity scenes in the Western world look very much the same. How did that happen? And how does this relate to a group of almost identical embroidered vestments made in Germany in the second half of the 15th-century? What technological innovation was made to ensure near-identical serial production? A perfect story to explore in the last days running up to Christmas 2020!
As said, conventional knowledge has it that none of the witnesses of the first Christmas left a written and signed account of the events. But through the ages, some people have claimed that they were transported back in time and witnessed the scene. They had a revelation. For Western Art, the revelations of Saint Bridget of Sweden (AD c. 1303-1373) are very important. Saint Bridget describes the scene as follows: Mary is a bare-headed blond-haired woman who together with Joseph kneels in prayer over the infant Jesus who radiates divine light. Saint Bridget became a bit of a celebrity during her life and her revelations were turned into images that went viral in most of Europe. It successfully replaced earlier conventional pictures of the nativity where Mary is reclining on a bed (still popular in Orthodox Christianity). You can see an example on the chasuble from St. Paul im Lavanttal (at the top on the back; the scene with the red background).
The images of the revelation of Saint Bridget were so popular, that they were also reproduced in embroidery for the orphreys found on chasubles. These orphreys are so similar that their designs must have a common source. Printing on paper with the help of woodcuts and metal engraving was invented in the first decades of the 15th-century and quickly became popular to cheaply spread imagery. Research into the composition of the design lines on some of these orphreys has shown that these designs were likely printed onto the embroidery fabric too. If you click on the pictures of the pieces from the MET and the Wartburg, you can explore further pictures on the institution's websites.
And here is a fragment kept at the Bayrische National Museum (Inv. Nr. T297) with the singing angels. Although these embroideries were made in serial production, slight variations do exist. Not only in the colours used, but also in the number or arrangement of the figures. In this case, a more pleasing composition was achieved by adding a third angel. There are quite a few other examples out there, but I don't have pictures of them that I am allowed to publish. If you would like to dive into the topic a little further, please explore the literature.
Fricks, J. von, 2010. Serienproduktion im Medium mittelalterlicher Stickerei - Holzschnitte als Vorlagematerial für eine Gruppe mittelrheinischer Kaselkreuze des 15. Jahrhunderts. In: U.-Ch. Bergemann & A. Stauffer, Reiche Bilder. Aspekte zur Produktion und Funktion von Stickereien im Spätmittelalter, Regensburg: Schnell & Steiner.
Wetter, E., 2012. Mittelalterliche Textilien III. Stickerei bis um 1500 und figürlich gewebte Borten, Riggisberg: Abegg-Stiftung.
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