BELEN: An introduction

The Belen or the Crèche is a model of the nativity scene. Most examples focus on depictions of the holy couple Mary and Joseph with their new-born child Jesus, in a stable. Usually there are farm animals, shepherds, and angels. There may also be three kings.

In the Ilocos Region and other parts of the Philippines the belen is set-up as part of the traditional décor for Christmas. Some houses boast of large sets with many other figures of regular folks in everyday scenes. Other biblical scenes may also be included.


The Mexican Belen

The Belen or Nacimiento, as it is more commonly called in modern Mexico, is a popular tradition in the Hispanic world. The Mexican tradition of depicting the nativity of Jesus Christ started with live enactments of the scene and was gradually replaced with figurines. Most belenes are fabricated using a variety of materials including clay, wood, silver, wax, and even corn husks. For example: in the Jalisco region of Mexico, the use of clay is a tradition handed down through the years.

In certain parts of Mexico as in the Philippines, it is not uncommon to see other religious and non-religious images represented in the nativity. The belen or crèche, is an illustration of a timeless custom, molded by creativity and grassroots genius. Some beautiful examples are featured in this exhibit courtesy of the Embassy of Mexico in the Philippines. 

The Sacred in the Ilocano Landscape

A crèche makes the Holy Family and other sacred figures come alive in the viewers’ home environment. This way the Divine is humanized so that viewers can encounter holy figures in everyday life. For this reason, a crèche provides a context for Biblical characters which reflects local landscapes.

In the same way that maps and town plans of Ilocos create pictures of the world, a belen is also a picture of the world that has been touched and transformed by the presence of the sacred.

Topographical Plan which comprises a part of the Province of Ilocos Sur in which are found the Military Districts of the Tinguianes and the Igorrotes




Ink and Watercolor on Paper

National Archives of the Philippines Collection

Plan of the Town of Salcedo

Ilocos Sur




Ink on cloth

National Archives of the Philippines Collection

The Local as Sacred

The birth of the Christ child in Bethlehem (the root of the word “Belen”) is a signal that the sacred has taken form on earth. One could say that all the other characters in a belen are sanctified by the presence of the holy child.

Belenes often feature local folk in traditional costumes carrying out everyday tasks. Chores like planting crops, harvesting, creating crafts or drawing water from a well may also be depicted. Likewise, familiar buildings or geographical features can sometimes appear in belenes as they do in other artworks like paintings. All of these localized representations may indicate that a town or even a region like the Ilocos contain a reflection of the celestial presence.

Portrait of Miguel Garcia
Juan Arzeo (attributed)


18th Century

Oil on Cloth


Arzobispado de Nueva Segovia Collection

Project for a Casa Parroquial for the Town of Vigan Capital of the Province of Ilocos Sur


October 14, 1854

Ink on paper


National Archives of the Philippines Collection