THE 2017 NATIVITY SCENE IN ST. PETER’S SQUARE: INTERPRETING THE WORKS OF MERCY

THE 2017 NATIVITY SCENE IN ST. PETER’S SQUARE: INTERPRETING THE WORKS OF MERCY

I have paid several visits to the 2017 nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square but only today did I bring my camera. I’ll let those photos tell the story of the 2017 Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square.

I have been in Rome a lot of years and believe I have photographed every tree and nativity scene since my arrival, and I have to say this is my least favorite ever. It is also probably the smallest, though it may seem large in the photos.

The best ever, in my opinion, were those produced for several decades by the Vatican’s own Technical Services staff – they were brilliant creations, painstakingly and artfully executed. By the way, remember that it was Saint John Paul who brought the idea of a nativity scene and Christmas tree to St. Peter’s Square in 1982.

The tree has been universally praised, but the nativity scene has not received universally favorable coverage. In fact, a close up photo (which I will show you below) of the depiction of the act of mercy of “clothing the naked” on one Facebook page actually caused that page to be banned by FB.

The concept is lovely – speaking of the corporal acts of mercy – but that aspect seems to have faded into the background, at least from what I heard people saying as they viewed the nativity scene (and children, as always, had the best comments!). Remarks are more focussed on the “head” in the jail cell, the unclothed man (clothe the naked), a body on a table (bury the dead), on the fact there are no animals, not a single lamb or ox, on the fact that the Holy Family, the Baby Jesus, seem to get lost in clutter. Yet Jesus, Mary and Joseph – Jesus! – ARE the focus of any Christmas celebration or depiction.

You are standing next to a five-year old who turns to his parents and exclaims (in Italian), “But our presepe (nativity scene) at home is much nicer!”

And today, another youngster asked, “what is that head in a jail or some place?”

The Vatican website (and, as of yesterday, there is a brand new news portal – http://www.vaticannews.va – that’s a whole other news story, not without its critics!) noted before Christmas that, “The crib scene for Christmas 2017 will be donated by the ancient Abbey of Montevergine in the Campania region of southern Italy. The scenery and crib figures, in 18th century Neapolitan costumes, will be produced by artisans in a local workshop. The two-metre high figures, inspired by the theme of the Works of Mercy, will be made of coloured terracotta with garments in traditional fabrics.”

The same note explained that the Christmas tree is a giant, 28-meter high red fir, given, by the archdiocese of Elk in north-eastern Poland. It was transported over two thousand kilometres across central Europe and Italy, before arriving here in the Vatican.

The tree was decorated with stars and baubles designed by young cancer patients from several Italian hospitals. The decorations have been made out of clay by children and their parents during therapeutic workshop sessions and reproduced in hard-wearing synthetic materials that can stand up to the winter weather conditions in St Peter’s Square. A number of children from earthquake-hit areas of central Italy also took part in this design project.


There is an interactive element to this year’s nativity scene and that is actually nice.

I accessed the file, per their instructions, saw a 4-minute video and copied the English text for you exactly as it appeared on my cell phone – here it is:

The nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square is a gift from the sanctuary of Montevergine in the province of Avellino. In the Cernobo, founded by Saint William from Vercelli in the first half of the 12th century, the imposing icon of our Lady of Montevergine is worshipped.

The work was carried out by the Cantone and Costabile workshop in Naples which into 2013 brought to this square the first large Neapolitan crib. The theme is “mercy” all around the scene of the nativity in Neapolitan style of the 18th century. There are several characters who act (out) the seven works of bodily mercy transmitted by the Gospels. These are two or three-inch high-rise figures following the tradition with head, hands and feet of terracotta, eyes of glass and fabric padded-stuffed bodies.

At the center of the composition stands the Holy Family housed in the ruins of an ancient, once-balled temple, a direct setting pointing to how Christianity defeated paganism. The scene is completed by an angel with wings spread, a piper and the Kings, who come to the sight of Jesus led by the starry comment.

 

As for the other scenes: on the left there is the representation of the work “visiting the prisoners”: the setting is a fictitious cell formed by a grate with a single bar, a metaphor of the human being prisoner of his sins, that refers to an inner inertia that can only cease with repentance and with the reception of God in one’s life.

To be mentioned is also the interpretation of the work “housing pilgrims” represented by a woman who hosts a stranger, to symbolize the welcome in the broad sense, with particular reference to the present and the invitation to except the brother come from a far distance often repeated by Pope Francis.(this photo also has the image of Our Lady of Montevergine)

It is precisely on the representation of this work that there is a branch of the Madonna of Montevergine that remembers the donation of the nativity by the Abbey and emphasizes that the same mother of God constantly welcome so many pilgrims, even in her Irpinian sanctuary.

In the representation of the scene “treating the sick,” master Canton has focused on the dualism between body and spirit; very often, in fact, we focus on the external aspect at the expense of the spiritual one.

“Feed the hungry” and “quench the thirsty” are depicted in a single scene: the character was made with his mouth open and wide eyes, a sign of wonder and amazement in the face of goodness of mind and altruism; instead of being pleased with the gift received, man is astonished by the kindness of action, since in contemporary society Christian values seem to have sunken; the generosity of the neighbor creates wonder and is manifested in the character’s gaze.

In the scene “burying the dead”, is depicted only a falling arm, a reference to the deposition of Caravaggio in the Vatican museums.

For “dressing the naked,” an Academy was created, that is, a character entirely carved; the scene presents two men almost peers, a noble who gives a cloak to a needy lying down and half naked; it is the triumph of charity, and the purpose of donating in the imitation of Christ, who gave his life for the salvation of man.