The Roman Philosopher Lucius Anneaus Seneca (4 BCE-65 CE) was perhaps the first to note the universal trend that growth is slow but ruin is rapid. I call this tendency the "Seneca Effect."

Tuesday, December 27, 2022

Christmas' Nativity Scenes: Using Images to Cross the Language Barrier


A Nativity Scene ("presepe") near Florence this year. This way of celebrating Christmas never went out of fashion in Southern Europe, and perhaps never will (but you may never know). It is part of the effort of making communication possible between people who don't speak the same language. The Catholic Church tried this method with some success, maybe we can learn something useful from this experience. 

This is another non-catastrophistic post on the "Seneca Effect" blog, but don't worry. We'll return to doom and gloom next year. 

The "Nativity Scene" is a traditional way to celebrate Christmas in Catholic countries, especially in Southern Europe. In Italy, it is known as the "presepe," a term that originally meant the "manger" where the baby Jesus was placed. If you have been a child in a country where this use is common, you cannot escape the fascination and the magic of these scenes. And, indeed, they make for a much more creative effort than the more recent tradition of the Christmas tree. Making a presepe may involve collecting moss from the garden to simulate the grass, making lakes using aluminum foil, creating trees with toothpicks and green-painted sponge chunks, a starry sky using blue paper with holes and, finally, the star of Bethlehem made, again, from aluminum foil. 

As usual, for everything that exists, there is a reason for it to exist. And that holds also for Nativity Scenes. In the end, these scenes are forms of non-verbal communication.  The fundamental point of religions such as Islam and Christianity is their universality. They accept all races, languages, regions, and cultures. That brings a problem of communication: how can an imam or a priest communicate with the faithful if they don't have a common language? 

In the case of Islam, God spoke to the prophet Muhammad in Arabic, and that remains the sacred language of the faithful. Of course, modern Arabs do not easily understand the language spoken at the time of Muhammad and not all Muslims are native speakers of Arabic. But Islam focuses on the Quran, encouraging the faithful to study and understand its language. Islam is a text-based religion expressed mainly by the human voice of the mu'azzin. It sees images with diffidence, 

For Christianity, the problem was much more difficult. God spoke to the prophets in Hebrew, the language of the Bible. Then, Jesus Christ spoke most likely Aramaic, whereas the Gospels were written in Greek. Then, when the center of Christianity moved to Rome, the holy texts were translated into Latin, which came to be seen as one of the main languages of Christianity. In addition, Christianity diffused rapidly into regions, such as Western Europe, which had emerged from the collapse of the Roman Empire as a hodgepodge of very different languages with different roots. 

So, it made sense for the Christian Church to use visual imagery to carry the message to everybody. That was an early characteristic of Christianity, for instance, the sentence in Greek ("Iēsous Christos, Theou Yios, Sōtēr") (Jesus Christ Son of God, Savior) was turned into an acronym that could be read as "ichthys," which means "fish" and therefore could be expressed as the image of a fish. Not every Christian understood Greek, but everyone could recognize a fish.  

The idea of using images to represent sections of the holy texts accelerated during the late Middle Ages and early Modern Times when there was an evident attempt of the Christian Church to maintain the universality of their religion (the term "Catholic" means "universal") while facing the dissemination of texts translated into national languages. It led to the creation of pilgrimage sites that we would define today as "theme parks," where the stories of the gospels were represented as 3D imagery. Some of these "parks" still exist today. Below, you see an example from the San Vivaldo monastery that goes back to the 16th century. Visiting that place is an eerie experience.

In parallel, small scales versions of the Nativity story became popular. The first version similar to the modern one goes back to 1291, and it was created by Arnolfo di Cambio. From then on, many different and elaborate versions were produced. It was an original idea that has parallels with our use of "emoticons." Our times are strongly image-based in terms of communication, and the vitality of Nativity Scenes is not in discussion. There are many examples of weird, funny, or outrageous versions, such as this one from 2016, with Donald Trump and other characters of the time. 

There are versions with zombies, others inspired by Star Wars characters, Disney characters, fuzzy bears, cats, dogs, and, of course, the queer version with two Marys or two Josephs. 

Our civilization is probably the most visually-oriented one in history, and, at the same time, the most language-fragmented in history. So, it is not surprising that we are trying to develop visual methods of communication that go beyond the limits of national languages. It is necessary to do that if we want to overcome the parochialism of nation-states and find an agreement on how to manage the planetary commons. 

But will it ever be possible to develop a completely image-based language? It is one of a few conceivable alternatives.

1. A dominant language, such as Latin was during the Middle Ages in Europe, and English is today. 
2. A creole or a koiné language, such as Greek was during late antiquity. Esperanto could play this role nowadays. 
3. A purely gestural language, such as the one that the Native Americans had developed before coming into contact with the Europeans. It might have a parallel with the modern "emoticons"
4. Automated, real-time translations -- these were not possible in the past, but in modern times Artificial Intelligence offers possibilities unthinkable in the past. 

The future will tell how civilization will face this challenge. Maybe it is unsolvable (and surely it is possible to worsen the problem). It is also possible that there will be no civilization surviving to address it. But, as usual, the future always surprises us. Why not return to cuneiform written on clay tablets? It would be, at least, more durable than any method that was devised in later times!


Sumerian cuneiform characters for "Ama-gi," that can be translated as "freedom" (literally, "return to the mother")


  1. Hello Ugo. You seem to have a bad link in the paragraph "Some of these "parks" still exist today. Below, you see an example from the San Vitale " ... clicking on the highlighted phrase "still exist today" brings a page not found error.
    On the other hand a post on Nativity scenes is a very good idea, they are a very original form of decoration, and appeal to many who are not regular church goers.

  2. Fixed, thanks. I had also misspelled "San Vivaldo" into "San Vitale"

  3. Seriously, don't worry too much about different languages today - the manual read from - by all - is one, anyway...

    I carefully compare between contents made on the net - in 3 languages...

    They seem all taken from one manual - as if all are reading from one book of instructions for a dish-washing machine...

    "World War III is actually ongoing" - English. "WW III already started " - Russian. "WW III is coming" - Arabic - and all of them give the exact same explanation on - why that is - letter by letter, phrase by phrase.

    This is despite the cultural differences, geographies, locales and others - as if each speaker/author of them has spitted in the mouth of the other (an Iraqi saying on when parties agreed behind scene but pretend not knowing each other)...

    The Fuel source is one and the Control is one, therefore the Theme all over the world is one - no matter how languages spoken are different...

    "Science poetry?" - English. "Say Entropy, instead..." - Russian. "Is this true or philosophy?" - Arabic;

    "In any system of energy, Control is what consumes energy the most.

    Energy, like time, flows from past to future"


  4. Thanks, the linked article was worthwhile, as so many Cassandra posts (that I never saw when they were newly published) are. Do you remember "the media is the message" a book from the 70s? It seems like the electronic media are all just pictures now, with lots of short lived memes, and very little text. Maybe a bullet list or some celebrity names, but nothing too hard to read ... ArtDeco.

  5. T.S. Eliot might not have agreed with you.

  6. Hello Ugo, if I'm not wrong, you posted some time ago some info about an history researcher who is focusing his activity on the 'historical Jesus', therefore, all the information about Jesus just from historical point of view. I cannot find anymore your reference, can you please indicate it to me? Many thanks in advance. Stefano

    1. Come on, anonymous, many researchers are working, and have been working, on that. Myself and my coworker Ilaria, present our personal reflection on Jesus in our book "The Empty Sea" -- in our opinion he was the PR manager of a cooperative of fishermen operating on the Sea of Galilee!

    2. In my comment I signed Stefano as it is exactly my name. No one is anonymous here.
      Sorry, I don't have any google account and just wanted to make a comment quickly.
      It is a very strange answer from your side, I know many of them, I just wanted the one you suggested.
      But as it is not possible, I wish you all the best anyway. Kind regards, Stefano

    3. Ops... sorry, Stefano, I missed your signature. Anyway, an answer to your question is difficult for me perhaps more than it is for you. I wrote several posts on the subject. You can use the search button on "Cassandra's Legacy" to find them