Cribs or the nativity scene are an inherent part of Christmas. The tradition of building nativity scenes dates back to 1223 when St. Francis of Assisi created a crib from living figures in a cave near the village of Greccio, where he then celebrated a holy mass. The faithful people were thrilled and the custom soon spread beyond the borders of Italy. The first crib in Bohemia was built in 1562 in Prague in the Jesuit Church of St. Clement. However, the crib from the town of Třebechovice is among the most famous, which – as the only object of its kind – was declared a national cultural monument in 1999.
Třebechovice is a small town (5,000 inhabitants) below the Oreb Hill, located 13 km east of Hradec Králové. On the main square, there is a plague column of the Virgin Mary and a fountain from the 17th century. And on the house in the southeast corner of the square, you will notice the figure of a shepherd. He holds a shepherd’s staff in his left hand, while with his right hand, he raises his hat to greet visitors to the Třebechovice Museum of Native Scenes.
The museum exhibits more than 300 nativity scenes from various regions of the Czech Republic, made of various materials, for example, paper or salt dough.
Funny details can be found on the mechanical wooden crib – for example, a dentist pulling a tooth from his patient or a man sticking his bare butt out of a window.
I was also impressed by the crib made of glass figures. It takes a glassblower 3-5 years to master such figures. These kinds of Czech glass nativity scenes were very successful at exhibitions around the world.
You will gradually reach the room where the story of the museum’s main exhibit – Josef Probošt’s wooden mechanical crib, as well as the fate of its creator – begins to unfold. The exhibition is made in a very attractive way to interest both young and old. The individual scenes of this story are shown in the small windows, and the original parts of the mechanism (the damaged ones had to be replaced with exact copies), Probošt’s tools and the crank, which was able to be turned by a child, but was later replaced by an electric motor, as well as several other carvings of Josef Probošt, are displayed in the display cases.
How Did the Idea Come About?
Josef Probošt was born in Třebechovice in 1849 and trained as a carpenter. He got married and the couple had a son Josífek, but the boy died when he was seven months old.
The young mother mourned her son deeply. Josef wanted to cheer her up, so he gave her a handmade nativity scene with several figurines for Christmas. The gift was liked not only by his wife but also by neighbours and friends so much that it gave Josef the idea of making an even bigger crib with moving characters.
He also engaged the carver Josef Kapucián, who produced various wooden objects for churches and shoemakers, and Josef Friml, an expert in wooden mechanisms for saws and mills, in his project. All three Josefs worked in the Probošt’s barn where the neighbours gathered, who not only admired the emerging work but also advised what still needed to be done, what figure to add… They started to be called “Bethlehem guys” and whoever wanted to become a member of this association had to pay “a loaf of bread, a wreath of sausages and two litres of spirits”…
For Josef Probošt, the production of this nativity scene became a passion, he devoted almost all of his time to it. He built the crib for twenty years, and for the next twenty years, he modified and replenished it. He took the motifs of individual scenes mainly from illustrations from the Czech Bible which was used in schools since 1864.
Třebechovice Mechanical Crib Today
Once you are familiar with this information, you enter the dark hall, sit down and wait. First, the clock starts to strike, the church window lights up, the bells ring and the cuckoo announces the happy news.
The individual parts of this carving work are gradually illuminated. Apart from the metal bells and leather straps, the more than a hundred-year-old nativity scene is entirely made of wood, including the gear wheels and mechanism shafts. It is 6.9 m long, 2.2 m high and weighs 1.2 t. There are 288 human figures and 83 animals, many of them moving, some using moving belts. When the mechanism starts to move, you do not even know which figure to watch first. Shepherds tend the sheep, the band plays music, miners work hard in the mines, artisans in their workshops and village people come to bow to the newborn baby Jesus, but there are also scenes from his later life, including the crucifixion and resurrection. And who will find the camel or the elephant first?
Josef Probošt received a medal for his unique work on the very first exhibition in 1906. Other exhibitions and awards followed. Moreover, the crib also travelled the world – first to the EXPO in Montreal in 1967, then to the town of Madurodam in the Netherlands and in 1970, it travelled to London for four months for the Ideal Home Exhibition, where even the Queen of England came to see this work of art. It is interesting that the elephant figure did not return from EXPO. Therefore, an exact copy was made, carved by the Czech sculptor František Bartoš.
Josef Probošt passed away in 1926. His work was left in a barn and decayed. The family decided to sell it, but under the condition that it remains in Třebechovice. Among several buyers, the local teacher František Skřivan acquired it with the financial support of Jaroslav Burdych, the owner of a leather goods factory. The purchase contract was not preserved, so disputes over ownership arose later. The communists nationalized the crib, but the lawsuits continued again after the fall of communism. It was not until 1999 that the court decided that the nativity scene remained the property of the town of Třebechovice. Probošt’s work is displayed on a modified chassis of a tow truck. Although he did not like to expose the mechanism to his competitors, nowadays, museum visitors can admire it. In 2016, the crib underwent a major renovation.
At the end of your visit to the museum, you can buy a souvenir or choose from a wide range of paper nativity scenes, either set in an exotic backdrop or a typical Czech country or town.
You can visit the Třebechovice Museum not only during the Christmas period. Just not on Monday, because then the museum is closed.
Opening hours and other practical information: Třebechovice Nativity Museum
Address: Masaryk Square 1426
More information about the Hradec Králové Region: hkregion
No matter what time you come here, you will definitely calm down for a while. When the wooden figures start to move, the original voice of the village teacher Skřivan is heard, reminding us that the most important thing in life is love. Only with love, we can do beautiful things, regardless of whether we receive something in return…
Text: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri
Fotos: © Copyright Ingrid, Travelpotpourri