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Two artifacts from Porto remind us that heritage can be quirky, too

Two artifacts from Porto remind us that heritage can be quirky, too

These Baroque Christmas nativity scenes have something unusual about them

If things manage to return to normal next year, we can at least all share and even feel of sense of pride of having lived through an unusual year – one that will definitely go down in the history books. The pandemic has trampled over established traditions and conventions and forced many people, companies and administrations to get creative and think of new ways to help life carry on at least in a semi-normal fashion, if that.

Take the second largest Portuguese city of Porto, for example. This year, its Christmas Tree was not placed in front of the City Hall as has been customary and neither did the traditional lights inauguration party on Avenida dos Aliados take place. Likewise, New Year’s Eve fireworks have been cancelled, concerts suspended and so on – all with the aim of avoiding the gathering of large crowds of people.

Nonetheless, the city authorities have lit the streets in the Baixa district and shopping vouchers have been provided in order to ease the suffering of local retailers. The city has decided to unveil also one of its treasured heritage secrets as a special surprise – this concern the possibility to view two Baroque nativity scenes, which feature not the usual 3 Wise Men visiting Baby Jesus, but 4 of them!

What can explain those unusual pieces of religious art?

The 3 Wise Men are commonly celebrated in the Catholic Parts of Europe for their role as being the first figures to acknowledge the importance of the new-born baby in Bethlehem. Since they brought gifts (gold, frankincense and myrrh) they have been long celebrated as something of the prototype of Santa Claus. Every year 6 January is known as Kings’ Day (since in Romance Languages, such as Portuguese, they are actually known as the 3 Magic Kings or Magi) and it was on that day that children traditionally received presents.

However, in what seems puzzling in two Baroque works of art, next to Gaspar, Balthazar and Melchior, there is a fourth wise man. Even more, he is pulling a llama! The explanation is simple.

By the 18th century with the Age of Discoveries, Europeans got to learn that apart from the world they have previously known there was also the large dual American continent – one which the scriptures have not mentioned previously.

There was considerable debate as to the nature of the native population encountered in the Americas and how they fit into the whole known story about the creation of the world. So, if Gaspar, Balthazar and Melchior have always represented Europe, Africa and Asia, as per traditional lore, then surely the Americas needed their representative, too. Hence, the man leading a llama.

Oddly or not, the new addition has not really caught on, but for those who believe that the Americas, too need their rep in the name of equality can head to the Church of São José das Taipas or to the Museological Center of the Confraria das Almas do Corpo Santo de Massarelos, where the two rare artefacts will be displayed until 28 March 2021 (11:00-12:30 and 15:30-17:00).

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