Over at Where Peter Is, Pedro Gabriel had a chat with art historian Dr. Lucia Arbace, who recently wrote an article about the controversial 2020 Nativity Scene in St. Peter’s Square, delving into some of the history behind it. (It was first exhibited during Christmas 1965 in a village in Italy.)
It makes for interesting reading. A snip:
PG: How was the Presepe Monumentale chosen for this year’s nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square? Was Pope Francis directly involved in that process?
LA: I learned that the idea came from Archbishop Michele Seccia, who preceded Bishop Lorenzo Leuzzi as bishop of the diocese of Teramo–Atri. The idea was then developed in the aftermath of the 2017 earthquake that aggravated the already precarious situation left by the terrible earthquake of 6th April 2009, which hit L’Aquila harder than anywhere, causing 309 casualties.
I do not think – but this is my personal opinion – that the Pope had a specific role other than accepting the request, which came from the Teramo–Atri diocese and from local entrepreneurs, the latter hoping that this would help to revive a society that was brought to its knees by these natural disasters, by shining a spotlight on a true gem of Abruzzo ceramic art.
I do not know if the Pope was aware of the positive 1975–6 experience in the Holy Land, but if he was aware, then it would have contributed to erasing any lingering doubt in the Pontiff’s mind.
PG: Some critics of the pope have been trying to find ways to question his orthodoxy. They have also criticized the Presepe Monumentale, because they claim it resembles “pagan idols.” What would you say to those who see “paganism” in these statues?
LA: This attack is absolutely unthinkable. In the last two centuries, artistic expression in Italy, as well as in the rest of Western Europe and overseas, has benefited from freedom of expression, with creative revisitations of traditional themes, including those regarding Christ and the Virgin Mary—the key figures of Christianity. In my mind, there is absolutely no pagan idolatry or blasphemous intention in the Castelli Presepe.
PG: Some people did not understand the art style of the Presepe. You said in your article that the circular shape of the nativity figures evoke tree trunks, firmly planted on the ground, and implicitly brings up the idea of roots. Do you have any other comments as to why the figures have this cylindrical shape?
LA: The choice of these cylindrical blocks is linked to the modularity of the project, which sought to provide a formal model that was easily replicable and simple to make, to apply to the production of large ceramic sculptures depicting figures. Using a circular plan module, it was then possible to add elements to create individual characters—and not only for the Presepe. Some forms were freely inspired by elements of industrial production of the time, like spark plugs, which have the screw-thread at the base (which is seen in the smallest of the angels). Remember, however, that to appreciate the 54 figures of the Presepe Monumentale in its entirety and complexity, visitors should go to the Liceo di Castelli exhibition venue.
There’s much more. Check it out.
Meanwhile, at least one report suggests the pope isn’t a fan:
Pope Francis on Sunday appeared to add his own thumbs-down to widespread criticism of an unorthodox nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square, telling visitors to instead visit a nearby exhibition of traditional crèches.
At his last Sunday blessing and address before Christmas, Francis also said the holy day that marks the birth of Jesus had been “kidnapped” by consumerism.
Speaking from his window overlooking the square, Francis twice urged people to visit an outdoor exhibit under the square’s colonnade where 100 small traditional nativity scenes are on display.
They demonstrated “how people try to use art to show how Jesus was born (and)… are a great religious education of our faith,” he said.
He made no mention of the main nativity in the centre of the square, a larger-than-life ceramic assembly of statues that includes an astronaut and a character reminiscent of Darth Vader from Star Wars.
It has received scathing reviews in the media and from visitors, many of whom have expressed emotions ranging from puzzlement to contempt.