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It’s about the Art, for Art’s Sake

The Vatican’s 2017 Nativity Display is generating more than a little vitriol from some Catholics on social media.

Life-size statues depict the corporal work of mercy of clothing the naked in the Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square at the Vatican Dec. 14. (CNS photo/Junno Arocho Esteves)

The Vatican’s 2017 Nativity Display is generating controversy. Among other things, it features a largely naked man being clothed—one of several representations of the Corporal Works of Mercy represented in the display. The depicted man is rather muscular—one critic referred to him as “Adonis”. Others note that he seems like he was robbed of clothes after having a good worked out at the gym. I like to think of him as representing the potential for a new “muscular Christianity”.

In any case, social media is abuzz about the controversy (shock), with some people favoring the display and others criticizing it. Unfortunately, some advocates and some critics aren’t helping the situation because they frame their support or opposition with sweeping generalizations about those who disagree. Supporters are, for some critics, “perverts”, defenders of everything-associated-with-Pope-Francis-at-all-costs,”gay-lobby” sympathizers, and so on. Critics are, for some advocates, “puritans”, Francis-haters, culturally ignorant, gnostic body-despisers, and so on.

In other words, some advocates and critics have trouble framing support or criticism of the art in question without resorting to negative characterizations of those with whom they disagree. As one observer noted, this is yet another instance of “all controversy, all-the-time” with yet more demonization of the other. More name-calling in the name of being right about Catholicism.

Of course, one can legitimately criticize this or that work of art’s use of nudity without thereby criticizing the use of nudity in the art of, say, the Sistine Chapel or in Michelangelo’s David or nudity in art in general. Or one can think nudity might well aid the theme of “clothing the naked”, yet still not find appropriate or aesthetically pleasing or thematically well-executed this rendition in the Vatican Nativity Scene. One might raise a question or a concern about some contemporary Catholics’ seemingly negative attitudes toward nudity and the human body without being a libertine or “Francis-is-always-right zombie” (as one person put it) or a “gay-lobbyist”. One can even like the thematic inclusion of the Corporal Works of Mercy and “clothing the naked” in this Nativity Display, and even like what one supporter interpreted as its “Adamic nakedness of fallen man” and our assisting others to “put on Christ”, without thereby underwriting a “whatever goes” outlook towards art in general.

It seems to me that certain advocates and critics can help the conversation if they focused less on their opponents and more on the arguments, for and against, this or that aspect of the art in question. But perhaps that is too much to expect of certain Catholics in social media these days, even in this time of Advent.

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About Mark Brumley 64 Articles
Mark Brumley is president and CEO of Ignatius Press.


  1. Frankly, and having a degree in Art History and having taught art in public school four years and exhibited in galleries and in the National Academy of Art on Fifth Ave. before 21 and having won two state wide prizes before I was 21 ( how long is this shameless plug going to be), I think they took this nude from another context entirely and simply laid him down in such a manner that he looks like he is trying to catch an M&M in his mouth which an angel has dropped from the sky above. He is not looking at the man clothing him but rather trying to catch that M&M. Look at it again. He could have been running in his original context while holding a spear which would explain the muscles instead of our seeing the body of a poor emaciated man. What man can afford a perfect diet for a muscular body but cannot afford clothes. They took this figure from another context and that’s why he is looking skyward instead of at his helper.

    • I wish I could up vote your comment. Made me chuckle, M&M’s. Your not so shameless plug was well needed so that art noobs like myself understand that you know what you are talking about, rather than opinion.

        • In my opinion, a lot of people refuse to be honest about the gravely evil nativity pictured above because if they were honest about it, their own credibility would be shattered. Many bishops, priests, deacons, and papalotrous laity have ignored the evils of this pope and have supported him, much to the loss of their own credibility. By “calling a spade a spade” – that is, by calling the above picture gravely evil – they would have to admit they were wrong about Pope Francis, that he clearly lacks sound judgment and is committing grave evils, and thus many years of their preaching is basically shattered and requires apologies and repairs.

          Really, most of this debate is not really a debate. There are those who are honest, saying that the above is not at all art, while there are those who are trying to maintain credibility by supporting Pope Francis while he leads many off of a cliff. Its like the spouse who marries a drug addict thinking they can change them – they refuse to admit that they were wrong because they hold their credibility higher than honesty.

        • Does one really think that God the Father Almighty and the Blessed Mother approve of a naked man depicted in one of the most solemn and holy mysteries? One’s conscience is dead if one thinks God and the Blessed Mother approve of the above trash.

    • Focus on the argument, says the editor. Ok. The only argument possible with Pope Francis’s nativity scene is “the duck argument”. If it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, its a duck. If Pope Francis hired notoriously gay Msgr. Battista Ricca (from Bergoglios old stomping grounds in Latin America) as director of the Casa Santa Marta, where Francis resides, and if Pope Francis supports such male nudity in a nativity scene, and if Pope Francis is notorious for being friends with other Lavandar Mafia members… Well, isn’t it likely a duck? Don’t try to suggest the above picture is “art”, otherwise you May be committing mortally sinful lying. It aint art.

      • I would encourage readers to take in Ann Barnhardt’s comment about this present disgrace at the Vatican. She’s her own brutal self, but she nails it. Brumley’s comment that people do not ‘focus on their own argument ‘ makes about as much sense as anything you hear from the intelligence-poor left. A real snowflake runs Ignatius Press, evidently.

        • Way to prove the author’s point—attacking him personally instead of critiquing the display itself. Stop parroting what someone else says about it and offer your own thoughts, and leave off the political “left” or “right” polarization. I think it’s tacky, and poorly done, and as another commenter noted, the man doesn’t even seem to belong in the scene, as he’s not looking at the one helping him. What are *your* thoughts on why it’s inappropriate?

          • Madame, much to your point, I am not ‘attacking Mr. Brumley personally’, rather I am taking aim at his inane statement. The ‘display’ does not deserve ‘a critique’ as it is pornographic. In addition, to reference Ann Barnhardt is not ‘parroting’ her, but rather indicating agreement with her thought. Do you not know the difference? For what is the purpose of footnotes in good writing? To cite the words of others. The ‘political left or right polarization’ that you obviously despise is the absolute state of reality within our country and within our Church. Are you so naive as to not realize that the liberal left is now running the Catholic Church with purposeful intent of destroying her and fashioning a ‘new church’ in line with the godless, global cabal? My thoughts are that for some unknown reason it disturbs you greatly that I am taking on Mr. Brimley.

        • Brumley’s comment that people do not ‘focus on their own argument ‘ makes about as much sense as anything you hear from the intelligence-poor left.

          Brumley never made that comment. Brumley said focus arguments on the art, not on attacking people who disagree with you about it.

    • I see your point about the man not being crafted for this particular exhibit but removed from another scene and laid down to represent the poor man with no clothing.

      What strikes me about this particular nativity scene, however, is its horror vacui. It resembles paintings by both Breugels. It seems that, while we have advanced technologically, culturally, we are reliving a sort of manic middle ages.

  2. I’m not an artist at all, but even I noticed that the naked young man also was sporting a rather stylish ‘3-day stubble beard’ and nicely trimmed hair. Perhaps he was doing something else before he got a boo-boo on his left leg, lost all of his clothes, and needed to be dressed with what? A white toga? Was this portion of the tableau suggested by Archbishop Paglia?

      • It could be, Mr. Brumley. Perhaps after a good workout, he showered off only to discover that someone had stolen his gym bag with all of his clothes. While searching the locker room, he slipped on the floor and scraped his leg on a bench. Then this kind gentleman offered him a towel. Yeah, that’s it! It’s not a toga that he’s offering, it’s a towel!

  3. This commentary is utter nonsense. I don’t recall any brouhaha about Adam’s nakedness in the Sistine Chapel. This is just porn being paraded as having something to do with the Nativity. What that is is anyone’s guess. But “who am I to judge?”

  4. As someone who has frequented gyms for almost 30 years and who also works with the disadvantage in several capacities, I can assure you that this nude figure fails as both realism and symbolism. The down-on-their-luck folks whom I work with do not sport bodies like this guy’s. Even among regular gym goers, very few look like this. To get this body, you have to work out all the time and keep to a consistent and long-term nutritional program. Or you use steroids. Why not show a nude figure of man who has an imperfect or even an ugly body? Or are we called to have a preferential option for the Beautiful?

    I disagree that this is about “the Art”. This is not “Art”. It might pass as “arts & crafts” but it is not “Art”.

    • Well, your comment indicates that you think the question is about art, even if you don’t think much of the “art” in question.

      • No, I don’t think it’s about “art” although I do think it is about taste. And this is really bad taste. And it does not belong in an nativity scene, especially at the Vatican.

      • Please stop it, it is not art, the person posting was not thinking or saying it was a question of art: it is demonic propagandizing of the blessed Lord and Gospel, His mysteries – His Nativity….how is it we do not know how to read the spiritual signs of the times….the Beloved said something about this….

  5. If you look at the rest of this section of the nativity scene it looks like the star of Bethlehem is crashing to earth and that the dome of St. Peters is in ruin.

  6. It’s homoerotic, and who is surprised? But who am I too judge? The inanities of this Peronista papacy cannot end soon enough. I miss the normal over-reaches and progressive compromises of previous popes. Francis’ Catholic spin on magical realism is both offensive and tired.

  7. Here is another example of a person of note in the Catholic world who cannot see what the common Catholic does. It is happening on a regular basis in this Age of Francis. Mr. Brumley wants to discuss the TREES, but the man in the pew is seeing a FOREST in the initial stages of fire.

    Mandatums, canon law degrees, directorship of establishment Catholic publishing houses, bishopric rings, are now twirled about among the unwashed hoi polloi to tell us how we really should interpret.

    We little people have already seen Paglia’s Diocese of Terni-Narni-Amelia mural. We have seen the porn-ed “The Meeting Point: Course of Affective Sexual Education for Young People”. We know about the homosexual & cocaine orgy at the Vatican apartment hosted by Capozzi & his patron Cocco. Need one continue?

    Why cannot this “nativity” be seen for what it is: a politicized, sexualized blasphemy. Can’t they just leave Holy Mother Church alone?

  8. Great, we’ve gone from that wretchedly bad “Jubilee of Mercy” logo to this cluttered, messy, crude, vulgar tripe.

    Is that sufficiently “artsy” a critique?

  9. I don’t want to talk about trees. Feel free to talk about forests. just don’t be a jerk when people disagree with you. That’s the point.

  10. And they just had to pick clothing the naked when feed the hungry would have been much easier to depict. Aaah, but then there would not be a muscular naked man on the scene would there?

    Homoerotic this is.

  11. Context:

    Let’s not forget that (a decent portion) of informed Catholicism) – not too many months ago – had to digest the frankly homoerotic mural on an Italian cathedral wall whose archbishop, not only commissioned the “art”, but who was promoted to oversee and overhaul John Paul II’s legacy.

    The artist was well-known & much lauded, in large part because his artistic temper themes, and approach was permeated with homosexuality as a spirituality, as a stab at theosis.

    The result was disturbing, disturbing – with it all setting well and fine with the archbishop. Pope Francis, apparently, assumed this man was a worthy candidate as John Paul’s II’s demolisher.

    Many, if not most, of the responders to this nativity creche would have had this prior insult to their Catholic imagination in mind at its unveiling. The Catholic imagination can take only so much ridicule.

    Know how much things work. Artistically, understand how a project such as this is pulled together. The naked man – from its design stage – was meant to provoke: in its own aesthetic way move the Overton Window (now safely installed in the Church) closer to the acceptance of full-frontal homosexuality. Considering the larger context of this papacy – from which it was commissioned – there is no other interpretation.

    It has nothing to do with nudity.

  12. ‘Mascular Christianity’? In a gay infested Vatican? Mascular would be Christ, or his Vicar, whipping the lavender mafia out of the Church. But after all, who am I to judge?

  13. Marc Alan has very insightfully explained the motive of distorting the nativity scene, by what Austin Ivereigh calls his “Team Bergoglio.” The other commenters aptly describe it.

    As a father of 4 who has strived at great cost to impart a serious Catholic identity to my children, I am ashamed of Pope Francis and his “team,” and he and they are enslaved to a disfigured, disintegrated and deranged ideology of human sexuality. Their enslavement is manifested in continuously in their acts, omissions and ambiguities.

    Having witnessed 4.5 years of showmanship by Ivereigh’s “Team Bergoglio” and learned of the ideology of Pope Francis’ trusted “theologians,” I realize it would be child abuse to allow my children to be alone in a room with these people.

  14. With all that’s going on in the church and in the Vatican now, this piece as it was presented was either profoundly oblivious (to how it might be perceived in the context of the current problems) or intended as a sign (that the lavender lobby is in full control).

  15. Is there a piece depicting – admonish the sinner? (i doubt it, we’re only interested in the corporal works right?) or instruct the ignorant?

    not likely admonish the sinner has turned into accompany the sinner and give him communion, Instruct the ignorant has turned into dialogue with the ignorant.

    What would make the scene complete would be some nice scene of Francis not judging someone.

    • As to your final sentence:

      “Someone” like Cardinal Burke or Cardinal Sarah or Cardinal Mueller. That would be most apt…..

  16. This “Nativity” scene is a great example of the errors of this papacy! It is an example of what Cardinal Biffi said when he gave the retreat to papal household when Benedict XVI was pope. He predicted a new gospel would be put forth. A gospel that sounded very much like the original Gospel. Yet it was missing something. The new gospel is all about the works of mercy, yet is very short on Jesus Christ! In fact if you look at this display, what gets everyone’s attention is not Jesus Christ, but the poor naked man. Jesus is forgotten when he should be front and center. The King is background, for the priorities of “man”. Man is glorified, and worshiped, and God is placed secondary. In this new gospel, The woman who anointed Jesus with expensive oils, is all wrong! Judas is the hero! She should have sold the oil, and given it to the poor, or… the pockets of Judas. “…and if the time were not shortened, even the elect would be deceived.” Maybe this is why he said he thought his papacy would be short.

    • it’s not all of the works of mercy that they are encouraging. The spiritual works are done, at least until they can rework them – accompany the sinner, for example.

      we should i guess be grateful there is no scene depicting a haloed Francis giving communion to an adulterous couple while a bunch of Pharisaical bishops look on from a distance in disdain.

  17. Homoeroticism or tasteless trash, whatever this is, it is certainly no surprise coming from the Bergoglian Vatican. It fits right in with placing a soccer ball and jersey on the high altar at St. Mary Major. Quite apart from being hostile to true manifestations of the Faith, the Pope and pals don’t even know what Catholicism is.

  18. The commenter named “taad” has made a very profound observation – the eclipse of Jesus – in exchange for what captivates the minds of Ivereigh’s “Team Bergoglio.”

  19. If the work of mercy is clothing the naked it doesn’t look like it’s being carried out very effectively or that the beneficiary wants it all that much.

  20. Sigh. Just how very bad do things have to become before naïveté about the Francis papacy finally ends. These are NOT normal times. This is NOT remotely a normal papacy. In the context of this current papacy and its horrendous, implied acceptance or “accompaniment”, “discernment” of homosexual relationships, this large, dominating figure of a super buff male nude is a blasphemy in the nativity. It boggles my mind that there are still notable, faithful Catholics are still in such damaging public denial. You saw the Paglia mural. You know about the terrible LGBT prayer service just conducted by one of Francis’ favourite theologians Christoph Schönborn, you know about the Pope’s appointment of Msgr. Battista Ricca to important Vatican positions despite his past homosexual publicly known proclivities, you know about the strongly pro-gay events and statements by some of his appointed cardinals and others that are never held to account, you know he has welcomed openly homosexual and transgender friends for private but also publicly known visits in which he only affirms them .. and on and on– and yet you give this atrocity the benefit of the doubt. It is distressing.

  21. I’m baffled by this Nativity display. I grew up Southern Baptist and it’s my belief the focus of the Nativity should be the birth of Jesus Christ. I haven’t seen any naked, well muscled men reclining with their mouths agape in any other Nativity scene and frankly, I don’t get the, “art” of it at all.

  22. I respectfully disagree.

    I don’t see a moral equivalency between the two.

    The ‘Nativity’ is at the least, made to be provocative. At most, near-blasphemy.

    Reminds me of the ‘female’ Jesus at the inaugural World Youth Day in Denver.

    It was wrong then, this is wrong now.

  23. Can it be done, Mr. Brumley? Yeah, sure, it ‘can’ be done? The better question is ‘should’ it be done…at the Vatican…at Christmastime? In addition to damaging the faith of Catholics, there is also the pagan world, the Protestant world, the Muslim world, the atheistic world…any and all who might have considered His Church and, now, say, I can get this where I’m at, already.

    • I’m not sure why your question is directed at me. My article argues for engaging the art, not insulting its critics or defenders. If you don’t think the naked man should be in the art, I don’t take issue with you. My point is that there are Catholics who disagree and they shouldn’t be treated as “perverts”, etc. for disagreeing about it, any more than you should be treated as a “Puritan” or ignoramus for criticizing it.

  24. Let me see – isn’t the focus of a nativity scene at Christmas supposed to be the Baby Jesus? And with Mary and Joseph at His sides? If works of mercy were to be encouraged just maybe, some thing more tasteful? Are people who gaze upon the scene supposed to be moved in a spiritual and holy way? Does the vatican really believe that my first thought when seeing this image of such a well-nourished and built person is that this “poor” guy needs my sympathy? Seriously? I would be thinking “This turkey better put some clothes on.” What an embarrassment to make this a part of the VATICAN’S nativity scene. Art is fine, but make it appropriate for the time and place.

  25. Perhaps when discussing that photograph of a crucifix immersed in urine we should, instead of being outraged, have concentrated instead on the skill of the photographer, the effectiveness of the lighting, the artistry of the balance of positive and negative space, etc., and not said anything about the utter vileness of the content of the picture.

  26. The most incredible event in the history of the world, God comes to earth as a baby, born of woman, to bring salvation to sinners. THAT is the Nativity. This disgusting mess is not art, it is profaning the miracle of the birth of Christ. So, whomever chose this, whomever created this and whomever allowed this, did not agree to some beautiful art to give glory and praise to God, they agreed to basically take a dump on the baby Jesus. Nice going. Just for the record, this has nothing to do with anyone being offended by nudity in art. It has to do with faithful Catholics being fed up with the trashing of our religion by those who proclaim to also be Catholics. Talk about wolves in sheep clothing.

  27. As an artist and a devout Catholic, I think the issue is both theological and aesthetical. The entire scene does not evoke a sense of magesterial and supernatural awe which one normally feels (or wants to feel) when gazing at a nativity and contemplating the mystery of the incarnation of God the Son. In this particular nativity scene, there is no invitation to share in this monumental event with the Holy Family – nothing is drawing us in to “feel”. A nativity scene allows us to participate in this most holy and sacred SINGULAR MOMENT – the glorious and incredibly intimate moment when God became man and the union between the newborn Jesus and His earthly mother and father – no fanfare…no bright lights, music or cameras – just a silent and peaceful event overflowing with love and hope. An event that most parents who have experienced childbirth can relate to and even those who haven’t are aware of – this is a moment so sacred and profound that it is normally only shared by the mother and father. By gazing at a nativity scene, it makes us feel that we are part of that intimate moment of birth – that we are there at His side as part of His family and are participating in something we know to be holy and extraordinary, and the love and appreciation we recognize in that, is emotionally overwhelming… it’s personal…it’s life altering. Sadly, this scene lacks that invitation and sense of awe and feels about as intimate as an outing at a zoo. Aesthetically, it’s very jarring. Our eyes are frantically searching for that one focal point in which to rest – Jesus and the Holy Family. There is too much activity for the eye to make sense of the scene as a whole. The Holy Family gets lost amid the jostling figures and bustling scene. The different costumes make it difficult to process the biblical scene that we all know and come to lovingly expect every year. Much can also be said about the figures representing the corporal works of mercy (such as none of the figures are shown with any love or compassion in their expressions) but the reclining, almost naked man who looks in robust health is probably the worst figure. His startlingly posed position looks almost comically bacchanalian! I understand the point that this particular nativity scene was trying to impart, but I feel they missed the point entirely. This scene lacks the due and appropriate Adoration that we give to our Lord Jesus at this PARTICULAR moment in history and lacks the invitation to join our mother Mary and Joseph in total abandonment of ourselves to Him in praise and wonder.

    • Diane you summed up my thoughts. Man has an interior sense given by God that enables us to apprehend goodness and identify evil. The adage you know it when you see it has helped judges make the case of distinguishing porn soft or hard from Art. Similarly with the case of Rodney King despite all the arguments by defense attorneys for the police charged with excessive force, and slow time exam of the film seeing it in real time enabled the jury to determine it was excessive.

  28. Here is Dr. Robert Moynihan’s Letter #67, 2017 describing the controversial manger scene. Unfortunately, the images didn’t seem to copy. But I think that Moynihan’s description about the Christmas tree belie the claim that this Nativity scene is about “Art”. Why are yin-yang ornaments on a Christmas tree in a Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square?

    “I was walking through St. Peter’s Square this cold December evening, and I ran into two old friends.
    We were all in front of the manger scene by the obelisk in the middle of the square.
    This is what we saw:

    “What do you think of the manger scene?” I asked.
    “Terrible,” one said. “The idea of depicting seven scenes showing acts of corporal mercy may have been a valid idea, but the execution of it is quite disturbing. I have never seen any manger scene quite like this one. The depiction of the naked man being clothed in an act of charity overpowers every other aspect of the manger scene, including the figures of Mary and Joseph themselves, and the hidden manger where Jesus will be laid on Christmas morning, in five days time. I do not like it at all.”

    I took pictures of the manger scene with my Iphone.

    Here is what my friend was referring to: a naked man, with only a wisp of cloth over his private parts, illustrating the work of corporal mercy of “clothing the naked.”

    “But this is not the thing that most concerns us,” the second person said. “We are concerned about the decorations on the Christmas tree from Poland. We have not seen a single religious symbol, not a single Christian symbol, on the tree.”

    “Really?” I said. “Let’s look at it.”

    So we walked around the tree.

    And I too saw that there seemed not to be a single Christian symbol on the tree, unless the star on the top of the tree could be considered a sign of the star that led the Magi to the Christ-child.

    “Look,” said my friend. “There are peace signs, and the oriental yin-yang signs, but no angels, no depictions of the Magi, no images of Mary, nothing but universal symbols. Many nuns in Rome say they are shocked and are very worried about the message these decorations are sending to the youngest. I wish I knew the Pope’s secretaries to tell them to tell the Pope what is on the Square, if really the Holy Father wants to go and to bless such things. The worst thing for all these sponsors would be for the Pope not to come to the Square on December 31.”

    Here is a poor Iphone photo showing one of the yin-yang images on the tree:

    “What has happened to us?” my other friend said. “What is our message? Where is Christ? There are no longer Christian signs on the Christmas tree! Really, we find Nativity scene this year just scandalous. What we are teaching our children? I feel sorry that people may think the Pope agrees with this.”

    In past years, they said, the Christmas tree was decorated with brilliant white and yellow balls, the Vatican colors.

    The two said they had written a letter to the Government of Vatican City, protesting the decorations on the Christmas tree.

  29. Robert Moynihan reports that there are “yin-yang” symbols on the Christmas Tree in the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. For me, this belies the argument the scene should be judged solely as “Art”. The person or persons who assembled this clutter seem to have a point of view that aims to distract from the centrality of the Light that comes into the world.

  30. Parts of the Sistine ceiling look far more gay than one naked gym rat—-nude dudes frolicking all over heaven and even God’s naked bum on display. Also there are lots of nude dude statues in the corridors leading to the Sistine. I opted NOT to take “gay Vatican art tour” that was advertised when I visited. That no popes after Michaelangelo did anything about that abomination speaks loads to me. I’m done.

    Converting to Eastern Orthodoxy now.

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