This nativity scene by Stefano da Putignano shows Mary and Joseph, almost life-sized, in traditional mantles that are similar to verions of the same subjects made by Stefano earlier in his career. Mary, Joseph, and additional figures and animals are arranged almost symmetrically around the Baby Jesus, giving the scene the solemnity of a ritual (though the arrangement could differ from that used originally). Originally located in a chapel on the site of the current sacristy, the sculptures were damaged in ca. 1700 when they were moved to the chapel of St. Michael the Archangel. An unpainted stucco statue of St. Michael remains above the creche. An inscription on the base of the platform upon which Jesus is placed reveals both Stefano's name and the date of the sculptural group's creation, 1530. Another inscription identifies the patron, Turco Galeone, a member of the local nobility. In comparison to Stefano's other nativity scenes, such as the one in the Cathedral of Polignano, this nativity scene still has the grotto and some of the smaller scale shepherds and magi, and so is well-preserved, but many figures seem to be missing, and most of the surviving sculptures have been crudely reset and repainted. The standing baby angel just above the ox and ass plays a curved wind instrument that Gelao identifies as a serpent (serpentone in Italian), which scholars think originated in the sixteenth-century in France. If so, this would be a very early representation of the musical instrument, a topical reference in an otherwise timeless image. The grotto itself is unusually made from a single piece of limestone, rather than being assembled from many rocks. The rough grotto and magi, arranged in horizontal bands, are very similar to those seen in other well-preserved Pugliese creches, such as at those in the Cathedral Altamura, S.Maria degli Angeli at Cassano Murge, the Chiesa Matrice in Putignano, and others. This church was built on the site of a cave with a painting of the Madonna. In the rocky landscape of this region, in which whole towns were built in and on top of caves, including Grottaglie, the image of the Nativity in a cave would be intensely familiar, tethering this event from long ago and far away to the very earth of Puglia and Basilicata.Photograph(s) licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
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