One of the most enduring images of Christmas in Portugal is the traditional nativity scene (presépio) which can be seen in every church, in every town or village square and in most family homes. Some of the most noteworthy nativity scenes can be seen in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga in Lisbon, while, in contrast, an eclectic exhibition of nativity scenes, containing approximately 2700 scenes from around the world, is on display in the Igreja de São Francisco in Évora (which is also famous for the Chapel of Bones). The collection is owned by Fernando and Fernanda Canha da Silva, who have been collecting nativity scenes since 1973 and it is now on permanent display in the first gallery on the first floor of the church, along with a temporary exhibition, which changes annually, in the second gallery. The collection ranges from the sublime to the ridiculous and from the simple to the elaborate. Each scene reveals something of the culture in which it was created, including a Chinese Mary, Joseph and baby Jesus in traditional costume and a depiction of the birth of Christ in a Bedouin tent accompanied by camels in place of the ox and ass. Many of the scenes have been made by local craftsmen using traditional materials, such as clay, wood, cork, wool, tin, ivory, ox horn and even seeds: there is a detailed scene painted on an ostrich egg, cork figures in a sardine tin, miniature scenes in cups, a naïve rustic scene where Mary and Joseph are dressed as traditional Portuguese farm labourers, and a tin field ambulance with the holy family in the back. The more unusual scenes include the depiction of Jesus on the cross with a nativity scene inside his belly, a carved wooden pagoda-like structure with a propeller at the top, a hippie-looking Mary and Joseph with an evangelist preacher-like Angel Gabriel accompanied by two enormous donkeys, and a piece of contemporary glass art by Mónica Favério, in which three very surprised characters seem to be floating around in outer space.
Unlike the large-scale baroque nativity scenes in the Museu Nacional de Arte Antiga, the exhibits in the collection on display in the Igreja de São Francisco are small, often personal, depictions of the birth of Christ, but despite, or maybe because of, their simplicity they express a heartfelt belief.
Igreja de São Francisco, Praça 1⁰ de Maio, Évora. Open daily (except 1 January, Easter Sunday, 24 December (afternoon) and 25 December): 1 June to 30 September 9am-6.30pm; 1 October to 31 May 9am-5pm. Entrance is included in the Chapel of Bones ticket: €4.