SAN GAETANO
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Gaetano's Crib
The 'presepio', analogous to the theatre, showed, in a static way to the simple folk, what had happened in the stable of Bethlehem. This was probably the intention of Saint Francis, when at Greggio on Christmas night of 1223 he arranged a representation with figures of the Holy Family surrounded by hay, led an ox and a donkey in front of it and called the believers around him to explain how Our Lord was born in Bethlehem. This made the simple bystanders relive what really took place, a picture being worth a thousand words.

The spread of the custom of the 'presepio' happened through the work of the Franciscans and the Dominicans. In the second half of the 1400s, from Tuscany it spread to the kingdom of Naples where in 1484 we find an important Neapolitan 'presepio' of San Giovanni Carbonara. The Neapolitan Rinascimento gave the history of the 'presepio' the contribution of well known sculptors such as Giovanni from Nola and Antonio Rossellino who created polychromatic figures and mangers in marble. Since that time, in Naples these crib compositions were centralized around a small hill, with the cave of the Nativity at the bottom surrounded by shepherds and the Magi on horseback coming down the mountain.

Pope Clement VII proclaimed 1525 a Holy Year and Gaetano was there in Rome, but not so with many pilgrims because of the difficulties of the times. For the first time, a medal was struck to commemorate the jubilee event. One side of the medal represented the manger of Bethlehem, recalling the beginning of the Holy Year at Christmas; on the reverse, above the image of Pope Clement VII, St.Peter could be seen pointing to a glimpse of heaven. This was explained by the inscription: "The gates of heaven are half open".

This, together with his devotion to the Nativity of Jesus and his Vision in his early days of priesthood, might have been the time that gave Gaetano the idea of improving on the Nativity scene.

An important milestone in the development and popularity of the Crib happened in Naples when Gaetano started to enrich the simple representation started by St.Francis of Assisi. Gaetano added not only characters from Jesus' time but also contemporary ones without the fear of any anachronism. In 1534, at the oratory of Sta.Maria della Stalletta, aptly named 'Our Lady of the Stable' near the Hospital for the terminally ill, he built a nativity scene with wooden figures dressed up in clothing in the fashion of the times. He amplified and extended the scene with many figures like shepherds, craftsmen, animals etc. After that the tradition took off and nowadays the Cribs of Naples are considered the best classical ones all over the world. As years went by, the crib was continually updated with figures from contemporary culture and politics. Gaetano had abandoned medieval symbolism and started a new tradition that gave life to what came to be the principal characteristic of the Crib, namely its timelessness which permits the reliving of the Birth of Christ in any age.

To those who were attracted to this new kind of exhibition in the church, Gaetano preached with such feeling and shedding of tears, that even those who were insensible to the fire and brimstone sermons of preachers, softened up at his words and asked forgiveness for their sins.

This new invention of our Saint was received with such fervour among the Neapolitans, that in subsequent years it spread to other churches, nowadays reaching most Christian and practically all Catholic churches the world over.
Doing this, Gaetano anticipated the Council of Trent which favoured the diffusion of the Holy Crib as an expression of popular devotion.

After the death of Gaetano, the Council of Trent, concluded in 1563, set precise norms on the cult of Saints and relics, accepting the representation of the scene at Bethlehem as an expression of the people's religiosity.