VATICAN CITY (CNS) — Especially in a year when the COVID-19 pandemic will rule out many people’s favorite Christmas traditions, they have a right to express their dislike of the decidedly untraditional Nativity scene on display in the center of St. Peter’s Square, said a priest who specializes in catechesis through art.
But it may be more edifying to try to understand it, said Msgr. Timothy Verdon, director of the office of sacred art for the Archdiocese of Florence, Italy, and director of the Florence cathedral’s museum.
First, he said, people need to recognize that dioceses ask the Vatican to feature their Nativity scenes, and the Vatican City governor’s office makes a choice from those offers many months in advance.
“Pope Francis goes out of his way to surprise people, to get them to think, to go to a deeper, more mature understanding of their faith,” Msgr. Verdon told Catholic News Service Dec. 15. So, given the pope’s willingness to embrace a challenge, when the governor’s office chose the ceramic Nativity scene from the town of Castelli, it made sense.
The controversial scene was made by students at a high school specializing in art; the pieces on display at the Vatican are among the 54 pieces students created over a 10-year period beginning in 1965. The town of Castelli, in the mountains of Italy’s Abruzzo region, had a world famous, thriving ceramics industry since the 17th century, but the art — and the town — was dying out. The school was part of an effort to revive the industry and modernize it.
The human figures in the Nativity scene are made of rings of ceramic stacked on top of each other. They are cylindrical, not curvy like a natural human form. And the presence of an astronaut and a knight carries the whole thing to another level of untraditional.
“This is not the sweet, warm nostalgia that Christmas usually generates,” Msgr. Verdon said. “But even in this intimate area of our religious lives, we have to grow in unexpected ways.”
As for adding the astronaut, the monsignor said that definitely is part of tradition. “In Naples, they add political figures, pop stars and, this year, (Diego) Maradona,” the soccer star who died in late November. “Not only shepherds and kings go to the manger, but all humanity makes that pilgrimage in one way or another.”
“But maybe especially this year when the celebration of Christmas is going to be so poor in tradition, when many people will be unable to do the beautiful, warm, tender things” they are used to associating with Christmas, they might not need such a challenging Nativity scene, he said.
And, at least judging from the social media reaction, they did not welcome it.