The Archdiocese of Munich and Freising reports on the new Edinburgh Nativity Scene which was sculpted by Thomas Hildenbrand in Germany.

Over the past two years, a new life-sized nativity scene for the Christmas market in Edinburgh has been created with the assistance of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising.

The beautifully crafted figures of the Holy Family were made by Thomas Hildenbrand.

This significant challenge was successfully tackled by the participating churches in the context of the Munich-Edinburgh city partnership, in collaboration with nativity scene builder Thomas Hildenbrand.

It all began with a letter addressed to Cardinal Reinhard Marx over two years ago.

The sender was Archbishop Leo Cushley of the Scottish Archdiocese of St Andrews and Edinburgh.

The idea was: Let's turn to Munich, the partner city of Edinburgh, because nativity scenes are part of the tradition there.

In the letter, the bishop sought help for a special project that the Catholic Archdiocese, along with the Reformed Church of Scotland, the Scottish Episcopal Church, and the city of Edinburgh, wanted to undertake: the creation of a new life-sized nativity scene to take a prominent place at the Edinburgh Christmas market.

Archbishop Cushley believed that with the assistance of the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, the desired nativity scene could be obtained, considering the special tradition of nativity scene craftsmanship in the region, as explained by Ordinariate Councilor Armin Wouters, who coordinated the nativity project on behalf of Cardinal Marx.

"The idea was: Let's turn to Munich, the partner city of Edinburgh, because nativity scenes are part of the tradition there."

Archbishop Cushley (third from right) with representatives from various churches following the blessing of the Nativity scene.

Building the nativity scene, embodying Upper Bavarian tradition, would also symbolize an important gesture for the partnership between the two cities, which would celebrate its 70th anniversary the following year, making it Munich's oldest city partnership.

Christoph Kürzeder, the director of the Freising Diocesan Museum and an expert in nativity art, took on the task of finding a suitable nativity representation, as Wouters recounts.

Since life-sized nativity scenes are not standard items that can be easily purchased, Kürzeder sought out an artist who could build a nativity scene in the desired format.

The choice ultimately fell on wood sculptor Thomas Hildenbrand from Ilshofen near Schwäbisch Hall, who was initially commissioned with a design.

In creating the nativity scene for Edinburgh, Hildenbrand drew inspiration from a small Gothic relief by Erasmus Grasser in the Diocesan Museum.

"I tried to incorporate the basic elements from this relief into the new nativity scene, such as the garments that almost completely envelop Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, or the fortress in the background, which is also iconic in Edinburgh," explains Hildenbrand.

From left: Thomas Hildenbrand, Sir Tom Farmer, a major supporter of the Nativity scene in Edinburgh, and Archbishop Leo Cushley.

He also aimed to establish a connection to Great Britain by studying the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, a group of 19th-century painters in which nativity scenes played a significant role. On the other hand, Saint Joseph became a timeless, modern figure, "with him, as a craftsman, I could build a very emotional connection."

This tension between tradition and modernity characterizes Hildenbrand's nativity artwork for Edinburgh.

"At first, I was concerned it would be too traditional," the sculptor reveals. However, he later realized that the fundamental message of the Christmas story is timeless and must be reflected in the representation.

The Nativity scene on The Mound.

"That's why I hope my work resonates with people as it did 500 years ago when Grasser created this work, which served as our inspiration."

After coordinating various designs with representatives from the city and churches in Edinburgh, Hildenbrand began his work this spring.

By September, the new wooden nativity scene for Edinburgh was ready for pickup outside his studio. The final version features the Holy Family in the foreground of a case shaped like a barrel vault, equipped with a perspective wooden interior.

In the background, a large landscape relief dominates, crowned by the Edinburgh Castle.

The nativity scene was financed half by private donors, and the other half was covered proportionally by the city of Munich, the Archdiocese of Munich and Freising, as well as the Reformed Church of Scotland and the Scottish Episcopal Church.

The city of Edinburgh covered the transportation costs for the life-sized wooden figures.

On the first Sunday of Advent, the nativity scene was blessed by Archbishop Cushley and presented to the public at the city's Christmas market, in the presence of nativity scene builder Thomas Hildenbrand and a delegation from the city of Munich.

Ordinariate Councilor Armin Wouters expressed satisfaction after the nativity scene presentation in Edinburgh.

Firstly, the nativity scene project represents "a noteworthy ecumenical symbol." The fact that this symbol for public space is derived from the "typically Catholic motif of the nativity scene," despite the Catholic Church being a minority in Scotland, is remarkable.

"The significance of the nativity action for the city partnership between Munich and Edinburgh should not be underestimated.

Wouters emphasizes that the nativity scene for the Scottish capital has helped renew relationships despite secular reservations towards religious symbols.

"Even non-Christians should be able to agree that the birth of Jesus shows that humanity is important to God without reservation, has dignity, and deserves respect. And these are elements of a society that we need more than ever today."

Text: Paul Hasel, Editor at Sankt Michaelsbund, December 2023. Original article published on the website of the Archdiocese of Munich & Freising