Key visual of the exhibition Christmas & Cribs | © Swiss National Museum

Christmas & Cribs

Exhibition | accessibility.time_to


This year, the traditional Christmas exhibition at the National Museum Zurich will focus on the three kings, who have been a key part of nativity scenes for centuries. The three figures are not always referred to as kings, but sometimes as magi or wise men. So where are they from? And what part do they play in the Christmas story? The exhibition shines a light on the kings and how they ended up in cribs across the world. It takes a look at the kings' journey and highlights the significance of the precious gifts they bear. The exhibition will feature around 17 cribs in a Christmassy setting, complete with a varied accompanying programme for the whole family.

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Christmas & Cribs

National Museum Zurich | 17.11.2023 - 7.1.2024
published on 15.11.2023

This year’s traditional Christmas & Cribs exhibition at the National Museum Zurich will look at how a large number of Magi became the three kings and why they are so important to the Christmas story.

The three kings have been a key part of nativity scenes across the globe for centuries. This year’s Christmas exhibition at the National Museum Zurich shines a light on the three distinguished visitors who are not always described as kings, but sometimes as Magi or wise men. How did Magi become kings? And what part do they play in the Christmas story?

The transformation from Magi to king is just one of the many parts of the puzzle in the development of the Christian legend of the three kings. It all started in the fourth century AD and revolves around the number three, which not only symbolises the Christian Trinity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but also the Christian values of faith, hope and charity. This may explain why what was originally several wise men became three kings. The fact that they had travelled from the three known continents at the time – Africa, Asia and Europe – also conveyed an important message for the still young religion of Christianity in the early Middle Ages as the three gift-bearers were supposed to represent the whole of humanity. Essentially, it was as if the whole world was kneeling down before Jesus.

The traditional Christmas exhibition at the National Museum Zurich will showcase kings from nativity scenes taken from all over the world. Their journeys, their origins and also the gifts they bear highlight the powerful symbolism of these three visitors. The festive exhibition features 17 cribs, complete with a varied accompanying programme for the whole family.


Adoration of the Kings

This motif emerged around 1500 when the colonisation of America and Africa was gathering momentum. Against this background, the idea of three kings from three different continents gained traction in Europe. The depictions increasingly featured a Black king. Altarpiece, church of St. Peter and Paul, Zug, c. 1493.

Swiss National Museum

Keeping up appearances

Although fewer and fewer people in Switzerland are members of a Christian church, many still celebrate Christmas with a beautiful crib and a Christmas tree. Transparent crib, 2018, glass, moulded. Hergiswil.

Swiss National Museum

In the Church

During the Middle Ages, each of the Three Kings were thought to come from a different region and be a particular age. The oldest is kneeling at the manger. The youngest in this group is the black king. Adoration of the Kings, c. 1500, wood, polychromy. Antiquarische Gesellschaft.

Swiss National Museum

In private

Christmas cribs like this one began to be displayed in bourgeois homes in the 18th century. Here the kings are shown with towering crowns or a diadem. Crib with Herod, c. 1750, wire, wax, fabric. Nesslau.

Swiss National Museum

Fabric crowns

Neither the turban, the scarf, nor the cap clearly reveal where the kings come from. The Black king alone is a clear reference to the African continent. Martin Renteria Hecho, paper, glue-laminated.

Private Collection, Bern

Joyful travellers

This crib shows two scenes from the Nativity: the shepherds gathering around Baby Jesus and the kings on their way to Bethlehem. Zwergli crib, c. 2009, salt dough, painted. Ecuador.

Private Collection, Bern

Precious vessels

The angel spreads his golden wings beside the Three Kings as they offer the infant Jesus their gifts contained in precious vessels. Crib with angel, 20th century, non-ferrous metal. Philippines.

Private Collection, Bern

Kitsch as kitsch can

Three very different kings are travelling here by camel, elephant, and horse. It is not clear which mount belongs to which of the kings. Patience Brewster, c. 1990, epoxy resin, gold leaf, etc. Colorado, USA.

KrippenWelt, Stein am Rhein


In the 20th century, cribs became an integral part of Christmas celebrations. They almost always include the Three Kings. Adoration of the Kings, 1952, wood, polychromy. Bavaria.

Private Collection, Bern

Pretty packaging

The robes of the figure on the left show the Three Kings arriving in Bethlehem and, as crib figures, they present their attractively wrapped gifts. Jim Shore, c. 2000, epoxy resin, painted. South Carolina, USA.

KrippenWelt, Stein am Rhein

Elegant travellers

The long necks of these figures are a nod to the llama. Each king is associated with a different continent by the colour of his skin and his specific mount. Hilario Mendivil, c. 1970, wood, plaster, fabric, etc. Peru.

KrippenWelt, Stein am Rhein

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

A view of the exhibition.

© Swiss National Museum

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Exhibition imprint

  • Overall management Denise Tonella
  • Project direction Erika Hebeisen
  • Curator and Concept Erika Hebeisen
  • Scenography Alex Harb, Martina Nievergelt, Zürich
  • Exhibition Graphic CinCin Konzept und Gestaltung, Zürich
  • Advisory committee Günhan Akarçay, Heidi Amrein, Beat Högger, Markus Leuthard, Sabrina Médioni, Denise Tonella
  • Controlling of project Sabrina Médioni
  • Cultural services and museum education Vera Humbel, Lisa Engi
  • Technical management Henrike Binder
  • Exhibition construction Ira Allemann, Marc Hägeli, Philippe Leuthardt, Sophie Lühr, David Schwitter
  • Conservation management Peter Wyer
  • Conservation and montage of objects Reto Hegetschweiler, Simon D’Hollosy, Ulrike Rothenhäusler
  • Lending and logistics of objects Christian Affentranger, David Blazquez, Claudio Stefanutto, Samira Tanner
  • Photography Jörg Brandt
  • Picture library Andrea Kunz, Fabian Müller
  • IT | Web Thomas Bucher, Pasquale Pollastro, Danilo Rüttimann, René Vogel
  • Video installation Georg Lendorff, Zürich
  • Marketing and Communication Andrej Abplanalp, Anna-Britta Maag, Sebastiano Mereu, Carole Neuenschwander, Alexander Rechsteiner
  • Advertising graphic CinCin Konzept und Gestaltung, Zürich
  • Translations Language Factory, Marco Marcacci, Laurence Neuffer

Items generously loaned by

  • KrippenWelt, Stein a. Rhein
  • Privatsammlung, Bern
  • Sammlung Würth