Last Saturday, the Vatican unveiled this year’s nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. Like we have seen so many times during this papacy, a controversy erupted over the artistic decisions made by Vatican personnel. Yes, the presepe is carved in a modern style that may not be to everyone’s liking. But more importantly, this is just one more thing that the pope’s critics can add to their litany of complaints against him. They have made it quite clear that they are determined to constantly remind themselves (not to mention the rest of us) that Pope Francis is always, without exception, wrong. If they stopped doing that, they might be forced to acknowledge that the pope might actually be right sometimes, and that they might even have to grant their assent to his magisterial teachings.

Many commentators have found this nativity scene confusing. For example, there is a figure in the display that appears to be an astronaut. Some have petitioned the Vatican for “clarification” on what everything is meant to represent. Certainly, we don’t have to like this particular artistic style. Frankly, it’s not my cup of tea either. But once again, the criticism has gotten out of hand, and some (including anti-apologist Taylor Marshall) are already claiming it is demonic.

Regarding clarification, the Vatican has indeed already offered a detailed explanation of the symbolism and significance of the images in this nativity scene, as well as information about the materials used and its style. It is part of an initiative called: “Un Presepe per (ri)nascere,” which means “A Nativity Scene to be (re)born” in English. The official site of the initiative says (my translation):

This year, even more than in the past, the setting up of the traditional Christmas display in St. Peter’s Square is meant to be a sign of hope and trust for the whole world. It is intended to express the certainty that Jesus comes among his people to save and console them. This is an important message for this difficult time caused by the Covid-19 health emergency.

Another part of the website provides more details about the history of this nativity scene, its artistic style, and the meaning of its figures. The article also explains the meaning of the astronaut (translated from the original Italian):

Teachers and students also wanted to immortalize important events of the contemporary world and so within the work we find eccentric statutes compared to the traditional figures of the Nativity, such as the astronaut, which is a reference to the conquest of the moon.

Numerous English-language media outlets have reported on the significance and history of the figures, providing context and background information about the display, including Catholic News Service and Vatican News, which reported:

This particular nativity scene tells of another story, too: one that is not captured with a single look.

It is perhaps this hidden story that has caused the criticism of some onlookers who have reacted negatively to what they perceive as a representation of the birth of Jesus that looks so different to more traditional ones.

The contemporary nativity scene, is in fact slightly different. Made up of a small part of a 52-piece collection, the nativity scene is composed of life sized ceramic statues, made in the typical style of Castelli, in Italy, internationally known for its ceramic artwork. It took over ten years for the students and teachers of the F.A. Grue art institute of the town to build and complete the full collection – from 1965 to 1975.

In other words, this nativity scene was not created in 2020 for this occasion, but in the 1960s and 1970s. It was created by teachers and students of the Liceo Artistico F.A. Grue Castelli, a high school in Abruzzo, Italy. Since its creation, the nativity scene has been displayed in Rome, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Tel-Aviv. The astronaut is there as a contemporary reference to the 1969 moon landing, during the period when the statues were being carved. It is not unusual to see anachronic figures in nativity scenes, especially those representing the people and events from the time they were built.

Traditional Portuguese Nativity Scene, with marching band and Portuguese folklore dancers Photo: UNESCO Center of Architecture and Art

I would like to add one final note about how the St. Peter’s Square nativity scenes are selected. On the Catholic Traveller website, we can see some interesting historical background:

The Vatican Nativity in Saint Peter’s Square is relatively new. It was started by Pope John Paul II in 1982.

For 30 years, the same figures were used, but the Vatican paid for a new scene each Christmas.

It was actually Archbishop Viganò who approached Pope Benedict in 2011 with the costs for the yearly crèche. The total costs for building the scene went well into the hundreds of thousands each year. This was around the time of Vatileaks.

An idea was then suggested to have a nativity donated from different regions of Italy, and that began in 2012.

In other words, from 1982 through 2011, the Vatican financed the assembly and construction of the nativity scene (at great expense) every year. Then, beginning in 2012, at the suggestion of Archbishop Viganò, they began displaying a different nativity scene donated from elsewhere in Italy each year. It just happens that this well-known display, which is decades old, was chosen for St. Peter’s Square this year.

Whether one likes it or not, it is not the big deal it has been made out to be. It’s just another opportunity to pile onto the pope. The truth is much less interesting than what the critics have made it out to be. Perhaps by understanding the background, people may begin to appreciate this nativity scene more. Even if they don’t, knowing the truth of the matter should inspire them to spend their Advent in a more productive way.

Image: The 2020 nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. Vatican News.

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Pedro Gabriel, MD, is a Catholic layman and physician, born and residing in Portugal. He is a medical oncologist, currently employed in a Portuguese public hospital. A published writer of Catholic novels with a Tolkienite flavor, he is also a parish reader and a former catechist. He seeks to better understand the relationship of God and Man by putting the lens on the frailty of the human condition, be it physical and spiritual. He also wishes to provide a fresh perspective of current Church and World affairs from the point of view of a small western European country, highly secularized but also highly Catholic by tradition.

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