two men hold colourful nativity scenes on the main square of Krakow

Krakow nativity scenes

In Krakow, Poland, making nativity scenes is seen as a cultural tradition going back centuries.

Maria Sliwinska (opens in new window) (ICIMSS)
Piotr Kożurno

A nativity scene is a traditionally Christian display of the birth of Jesus. It often shows a manger with baby Jesus, surrounded by Maria and Joseph, barn animals, and the three wise men that come and bring gifts to the newborn prophet. Nativity scenes come in all shapes and sizes: they might be life-sized, using actors to represent the protagonists, or they might be tiny wooden scenes made to display in a living room.

In Krakow in Poland, making nativity scenes is seen as a cultural tradition going back centuries. The Krakow nativity scene, as a cultural phenomenon, was added to the UNESCO World Heritage List in 2014. They contain selected fragments of Krakow's architecture, in which people associated with Christmas are placed, as well as fictitious characters from legends.

This tradition was initiated by bricklayers who sometimes could not do their work erecting buildings when the weather was too bad. This was especially true in autumn and winter. So they started to create small substitute buildings instead, like nativity scenes, that they could sell at local markets. They also created large moving cribs, which acted as a puppet show of sorts with which they carolled around homes to get some income during their unemployment.

In 1937, on the initiative of the director of the Historical Museum of the City of Krakow, competitions for the most beautiful Krakow nativity scene began to be organized. In 2022, the 80th edition of the competition took place, the results of which are always solemnly presented in front of the monument of the national poet Adam Mickiewicz.

Nativity scene makers taking part in competitions create their works for many months, reproducing in detail the rich architecture of Krakow. However, their nativity scenes are a product of the creator's imagination and a stylistic mix. The best example of cultivating this tradition is the Malik family from the Zwierzyniec district of Krakow, which has been participating in this phenomenal project for the fourth generation, winning numerous awards.

Stanisław Malik

Stanisław Malik received the Honoris Gratia medal in 2022 for numerous award-winning works that he has been creating since 1978. His nativity scenes have won prizes in more than 27 competitions. In 2018 Stanisław received one of his most treasured prizes, the honorary badge "Meritorious for Polish Culture" awarded by the Minister of Culture.

His works are present in many Polish museums, as well as in foreign institutions and private collections. Nativity scenes in the Malik family are a tradition initiated by grandfather Walenty, cultivated by Włodzimierz, Stanisław's father, and now continued by his son Andrzej.

One of the most common motifs Stanisław incorporates in his nativity scenes is the churches of Kraków: the soaring towers of St. Mary's Church or the golden domes of the Sigismund Chapel in the Wawel Cathedral. His nativity scenes are made of wood, cardboard and tin foil. They sparkle with numerous colours, among which the dominant colour is the red colour of the Gothic bricks of Krakow's buildings.

Włodzimierz Malik

Stanisław's father, Włodzimierz Malik (1912-1990), became interested in creating nativity scenes at the age of 4, watching his father's work. In Włodzimierz's nativity scenes, apart from the Holy Family, the 16th-century nobleman Twardowski is often present, who, according to legend, was the first to land on the moon. His nativity scenes were also awarded numerous times. In 1959 he received a gold badge from the Presidium of the National Council of the City of Krakow, awarded "For social work for the city of Krakow".

Walenty Malik

Walenty Malik, Stanisław's grandfather, was the first nativity scene maker in the family. He created large nativity scenes, often more than two meters high. His work were used to put on display in parishes, and at the Krakow Industrial Museum. He even lugged these scenes around to go carolling!

Andrzej Malik

Andrzej Malik made his first nativity scene at the age of 10. He's the youngest in the family, being born in 1990. Andrzej specializes in smaller nativity scenes, but he also does not avoid larger installations. He mostly plays with Gothic architecture, but he is also inspired by the works of the artist of the Secession period, Stanisław Wyspiański (1869 - 1907). Especially Wyspiański's stained glass windows fascinate him. In 2020, Andrzej Malik received the Creative Scholarship of the City of Krakow. He's also run workshops for creating nativity scenes for children in Frankfurt and Orléans.

This blog was written as part of the CRAFTED project, which aimed to enrich and promote traditional and contemporary crafts.