‘Twas a few days before Christmas, when all through the Vatican not an artwork was stirring, not even the Pietà. When out in St Peter’s Square there arose such a clatter, as the new Nativity scene attracted unfavourable chatter.
“It’s hideous,” stated one city state visitor. “Why do they have that one with the horns? What is that? A turkey?”. More conservative critics, like the National Catholic Register, even likened one of the figures in the festive scene to “a morbid, satanic-looking executioner.”
Since Pope St. John Paul II established the tradition in 1982, the annual Vatican Nativity scene has incorporated existing artworks from different Italian regions. This year’s 2020 display includes ceramic figures originating from a 52-piece collection made between 1965 and 1975 by the Art Institute in Castelli, Arezzo. The central province of Arezzo has been famed for its production of fine ceramics for over 2500 years.
Amongst the limbless cylindrical bodies, there is an astronaut impersonating one of the three wise men and a Darth Vader look-alike holding a shield. The Castelli sculptors created this curious astronaut following the moon landings in 1969, which captured the imagination of the world.
Twitter soon flooded with comments about the unconventional Nativity scene, ranging from deriding and mocking, to complimentary and uplifting. One Twitter user joked that the nativity scene was “by far the church’s best effort to bring me back into the fold.”
Pope Francis addressed the recent criticism with optimism, advising that “the Christmas tree and the Nativity scene are signs of hope, especially in this difficult time, let us be sure we do not stop at the sign, but get to the meaning.”
This is not the first time the Vatican’s Nativity scene has pushed the boundaries of festive religious art. In 2017 the scene emphasised works of mercy by depicting a man visiting a prison cell whilst another buried a shrouded body whose arm dangled free.
Although the Castelli sculptures were intended to be a symbol of hope against coronavirus, it seems they are making an infamous name for themselves for other reasons. A more encouraging interpretation of the scene was provided by Cristina Massari, a Roman tour guide, who concluded “it’s a nativity scene that has had problems, like we’ve all had a lousy year. If it made it, we can.”