A man inspects the details of carved wooden figures in a Czech nativity scene from the late 19th century. A Czech subculture still produces and exhibits ‘betlémy’ in a bewildering array of styles and materials (from carved fish to gingerbread)
It’s two hours and 20 minutes by bus to Jindřichův Hradec from Prague but the pretty South Bohemian town’s main attraction doesn’t disappoint. Occupying 60 square meters of a softly lit room in the municipal museum, the Krýzovy Jeslíčky (Krýza’s Nativity Scene) is, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, the world’s largest mechanical nativity scene.
Seventeen meters long, two meters high and featuring 1,398 figures — 133 of which move — this epic work was produced by local man Tomáš Krýza. A stocking-maker by profession, he began building his record-breaking nativity scene at the age of nine, inspired by an uncle, and continued working on it for more than 60 years, until his death in 1918. Donated to the museum in 1935, the Krýzovy Jeslíčky display is bookended by two smaller nativity scenes, created by brothers Emanuel and Bohdan Steinocher.
Pieced together whatever from whatever materials he could lay his hands on — mainly wood, paper, metal, textiles, glass, celluloid, straw and plaster — Krýza’s masterpiece of folk art blends scenes depicting the Biblical story of Christ’s birth with those more familiar to the artist: the craftsmen and countryside of 19th century Bohemia.
Krýzovy Jeslíčky is perhaps the most impressive example of a vibrant Czech subculture, which continues to produce and exhibit nativity scenes in a bewildering array of styles and materials. Since 1972, for instance, Kostel svatého Matěje (Saint Matthew's Church) in Prague 6-Dejvice regularly displays a nativity scene made from gingerbread in the run-up to Christmas, while the Muzeum másla (Butter Museum) in Maslovice exhibits a nativity hand-crafted from spread.
A nativity scene comprised of figures sculpted from butter
More traditionally, Třebechovice, in eastern Bohemia, also boasts a mechanical nativity of remarkable size, which, although 10 meters shorter than Krýzovy Jeslíčky, features more figures (over 2,000) than its Jindřichův Hradec rival.
A record-breaking nativity scene of a slightly more questionable nature can currently be found at Prague’s Muzeum Karlova mostu (Charles Bridge Museum), where, as part of a larger exhibition, the Czech Republic’s largest “fish nativity” is on display until Feb 6.
Certified by the Česká kniha rekordů ("Czech Book of Records"), whose selection criteria tend to be somewhat looser than their Guinness counterparts, Jan Czupryniak & Vlastimil Malyjurek's Vltavský rybí betlém (Vltava Fish Nativity Scene) features 22 carved wooden fish reenacting the birth of Christ. Standing before a tank of live fish, Mary is represented by a carp, Joseph by a catfish and Jesus by roe in a clamshell.
According to SČB chairman Milan Zábranský, his organization broke away from the České sdružení přátel betlémů (ČSPB, Czech Association of Nativities) in 2006, as a result of disagreements between the ČSPB's leader at that time, Vladimír Vaclík, and its Prague branch. Today, however, the two organizations “are friendly and we cooperate,” Zábranský says. The ČSPB, based in Hradec Králové, has been in existence since 1990. (The ČSPB didn’t respond to a request for an interview.)
A short walk from the Charles Bridge Museum, at the Kostel Panny Marie Sněžné (Church of Our Lady of the Snows), just off Jungmannovo náměstí, the ČSPB has an impressive exhibition of its own until Jan. 4. Nativity scenes rendered in a variety of materials, among them textiles, beads and bread dough, share space with more traditional wooden, ceramic and paper nativities, including several from the early 20th century promoting bygone brands such as Karo Frankovka wine, Otta soap and Cikorka coffee substitute.