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‘It doesn’t embarrass us’: Art teacher defends Vatican’s much-maligned nativity scene

By Hannah Brockhaus for CNA

The Vatican’s nativity scene is unveiled in St. Peter’s Square Dec. 11, 2020. Credit: Daniel Ibáñez/CNA.

Vatican City, Dec 15, 2020 / 02:00 pm (CNA).- Since it was unveiled last Friday, the Vatican’s nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square has elicited diverse reactions on social media, many of them strongly negative.

“So the Vatican presepe has been unveiled….turns out 2020 could get worse…” wrote art historian Elizabeth Lev in a post that went viral on Twitter. “Presepe” is the word for manger scene in Italian.

But Marcello Mancini, a teacher at the art institute where the ceramic nativity set was made, defended it, telling CNA that “many [art] critics have appreciated this work” over the years.

“I’m sorry about the reactions, that people don’t like it,” he said, emphasizing that “it is a nativity scene that must be framed in the historical period in which it was produced.”

Since the 1980s, the Vatican has displayed a nativity scene in front of St. Peter’s Basilica for the Christmas season. About a decade ago, it became the custom for the scene to be donated for display by different Italian regions.

This year’s nativity comes from the region of Abruzzo. The 19 ceramic figures, which include the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, the Christ Child, an angel, the three Magi, and many animals, come from a set consisting of 54 pieces made over the course of a decade in the 1960s and 1970s.

The display in St. Peter’s Square was inaugurated together with an almost 100-foot-tall Christmas spruce on Dec. 11, and immediately, two unusual figures in the scene caught the eye of onlookers.

Referring to a helmeted figure with a spear and shield, Rome-based Catholic tour guide Mountain Butorac said “in no way does this horned creature bring me Christmas joy.”

In another tweet, Butorac described the whole nativity scene as looking like “some car parts, kid toys, and an astronaut.”

The soldier-looking statue is a centurion and signifies a “great sinner,” explained Mancini, a teacher at the school where the nativity set was made. He is also vice president of the F.A. Grue Institute of Art, which is located in the town of Castelli in central Italy and also serves as a high school.

He noted that the astronaut was created and added to the collection after the 1969 moon landing, and was included in the pieces sent to the Vatican at the behest of the local bishop, Lorenzo Leuzzi.

Castelli is famous for its ceramics, and the idea for the nativity came from the then director of the art institute, Stefano Mattucci, in 1965. Different teachers and students of the institute worked on the pieces.

The 54-piece set which exists now was completed in 1975. But as early as December 1965, the “Monumental Nativity Scene of Castelli” was exhibited in the town square of Castelli. Five years after that, it was shown at Trajan’s Market in Rome. Later it also made its way to Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Tel Aviv for exhibitions.

Mancini recalled that the work had also received mixed reviews in Castelli, with people saying “it’s ugly, it’s beautiful, it seems to me… it doesn’t seem to me…” He commented: “It doesn’t embarrass us.”

About the reactions to the scene being at the Vatican, he said, “I do not know which criticism to answer, the school has allowed the exhibition of one of its historical artifacts.” He also pointed out that it was not made by artisans but by a school.

“It is rich in symbols and signifiers that offer a non-traditional reading of the nativity scene,” he explained.

But people look to the Vatican “for the tradition of beauty,” said Lev, who lives in Rome and teaches at Duquesne University. “We keep beautiful things in there so that no matter how awful your life is, you can walk into St. Peter’s and that’s yours, that’s part of who you are, and it reflects who you are and the glory of who you are,” she told the National Catholic Register.

“I don’t understand why we’d turn our back on that,” she added. “It seems to be part of this strange, modern loathing and rejection of our traditions.”

The Vatican department responsible for organizing the nativity each year is the Governorate of Vatican City State. It said in a press release that the artwork was influenced by ancient Greek, Egyptian and Sumerian sculpture.

The Governorate of the Vatican City State did not respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

In his speech at Friday’s unveiling, the president of the department, Cardinal Giuseppe Bertello, said that the scene helps us “understand that the Gospel can animate all cultures and all trades.”

A Vatican News article Dec. 14 called the scene “slightly different,” and said that those with negative reactions to the “contemporary nativity scene” may not have understood its “hidden story.”

The article quoted Pope Francis’ 2019 letter “Admirabile signum,” in which he said it is customary “to add many symbolic figures to our nativity scenes,” even figures “that have no apparent connection with the Gospel accounts.”

In the letter, which means “Remarkable sign,” Francis goes on to mention figures such as a beggar, blacksmith, musicians, women carrying jugs of water, and children at play. These speak “of the everyday holiness, the joy of doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way, born whenever Jesus shares his divine life with us,” he said.

“Setting up the Christmas crèche in our homes helps us to relive the history of what took place in Bethlehem,” the pope wrote. “It does not matter how the nativity scene is arranged: it can always be the same or it can change from year to year. What matters is that it speaks to our lives.”

“Wherever it is, and whatever form it takes, the Christmas crèche speaks to us of the love of God, the God who became a child in order to make us know how close he is to every man, woman and child, regardless of their condition,” he said.

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  1. “But Marcello Mancini, a teacher at the art institute where the ceramic nativity set was made, defended it, telling CNA that “many [art] critics have appreciated this work” over the years.”

    I’ve heard about some of the “art” that critics have appreciated over the years – ugly, disgusting, tacky, hideous things.

    It should embarrass them.

    ““Wherever it is, and whatever form it takes, the Christmas crèche speaks to us of the love of God, the God who became a child in order to make us know how close he is to every man, woman and child, regardless of their condition,” he said.”

    That monstrosity doesn’t speak of the love of God.

    • Szanowne ,, Catholic World Report ,, Na żółtej tablicy pisze że komentarze są ,, moderowane ,, że dyskusja jest mile widziana w celu utrzymania cywilizowanego poziomu aby nie było ,, nieprzyzwoitego języka lub ataki osobiste . A właśnie w Waszych komentarzach nie jaki podpisujący się jako ,, ranger01 ,, napisał : ,, gdzie są ci wandale których potrzebujesz ?Chodzi mi o słowo ,, wandale ,, Czy Znacie genezę uknucia tego terminu ! A jest to termin zniesławiający i znieważający naród Wandalów ! Człowiek który napisał ten komentarz napewno należy do Waszej redakcji ! Dziwicie się że są ataki na Kościół i katolików , a termin te to atak na lud Wandalów ! Jest ułożony w Polsce w celu bardziej odrazającej zbrodni niż ,, Holokaust Żydów ,, – Bo po nim zostaja groby i pamięć , która się czci !! A po Ewaporacji Wandalów !! Tylko ten zniewazający termin . Bardzo prosze aby na waszym portalu nie pojawiały sie terminy ,, wandalizm ,, ! Jesteście Katolikami ! Was atakują to atakujcie ich ! A nas Wandalów zostawcie w spokoju !Ci co wam mówili o tym terminie napewno nie mówili ani słowem że Wandalowie są twórcami Państwa Polskiego . A Polska obecnie to nie naród !! Tylko nazwa państwa w którego granicach zamieszkują Germanie ( Wandalowie ) I Słowianie , obecnie różne nacje ! A tym draństwem zajmuje sie w Polsce Katolicka Agencja Informacyjna !! Napewno wskazania wyszły od Małgorzata Kidawa-Błońska z Opud Dei . To organizacja kościelna ale co o niej myśleć i mówić !!

      • “The man who wrote this comment belongs to your editorial team!” (from Google translation)

        No, he isn’t. How did you arrive at that?

  2. We read: “…the astronaut was created and added to the collection after the 1969 moon landing, and was included in the pieces sent to the Vatican at the behest of the local bishop, Lorenzo Leuzzi.”

    As one who took part in the recovery of the lunar capsule and astronauts in the southern Pacific, July 24, 1969, my recollection is that all three of them were flesh and blood human beings, not deformed by the hypothetical and protected-against “moon germs.”

    But, better informed, now, on the origin and history of the creche figures, I can better understand their meaning as art.

    Still, as for their display at the Vatican—especially during this year of the fully global COVID virus—I come down much more on the side of von Balthasar…Who writes that to pretend to UNWIND history (as with “ancient Greek, Egyptian and Sumerian sculpture”) back to before the totally unique divine irruption (he also writes “clash” and “collision”) into the world as the Incarnation, is to falsify this singular and IRREVERSIBLE event and our own divinely revealed share in the Glory (THE GLORY OF THE LORD, vol. V: “The Realm of Metaphysics in the Modern Age”, Ignatius 1991).

    Yet more, darkened by today’s cancel-culture (not “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit, Luke 1:35), the display might even mimic Manichaeism, such that the marvelously elevated, redeemed and transcendental beauty of each human person (body too!) reverts back to just arbitrary stuff to be imprinted by whatever subjective or antiquarian (or worse) wrapping paper we wish to randomly apply…

    In place of Christmas radiance, now the pluralist equivalent to “gender theory,” even cross-dressed with clip-on, space-suit techy/transgenderism.

  3. Well way back in 1987 Serrano’s “Piss Christ” was hailed by the “art critics” as ground breaking and certainly a worthy winner of the the NEA’s Award for new artists? This latest placement of junkyard art at the Vatican carries on this pure Evil tradition of blasphemy against Christ and the Holy Family.

  4. Isn’t it the point of Christmas that Jesus came “in human form”? How does this portray that?.
    It contradicts the whole purpose of Christmas

    • “It contradicts the whole point of Christmas.” I shouldn’t be surprised to learn that that’s what’s intended, Terence. I’d love to hear Roger Kimball’s views on it!

  5. St.Faustina is said to have cried over the lack of the beauty and splendor of The Lord that could not be caught , in the Vilnius Icon , drawn at the request of our Lord Himself , who reassures her about same , asking more for the trust in Him ; having loved this icon , more so than many other well reputed pieces of art work including at the Vatican , thus not an art critic and still in efforts to also grow in the trust , in seeing ‘ God’s Will ‘ , to be cherished and loved , not feared . 🙂

    Thank you for explaining the symbolism in the pieces – almost as calling us , to do the Rounds in creation , to do what Adam would have done , to bring back all of creation , the outer universe and all too that could have fallen , with the rebellion of the angels .

    In our own times , with the increasing focus and ? even covert warfare ( 5 G and all that ) related to space and satellites etc : , the above too , ? inviting many to do our loving responsibility , to reciprocate the love The Father has placed in all of creation for love of us , thus to invite Him , to beat in our hearts and move in our will, to help us to love and thank Him , with the will and love with which He loves us ..

    The Reign of His Kingdom as His mercy and Will to shine ever more brightly all through , as was the light in which Adam and Eve were clothed in , in The Divine Will , till they loosing same in the Fall , in the nakedness of the rebellious self will alone , in shame . Thus , for those who cringe a bit at the scene of creation of Adam in the Sistine Chapel too -‘ love and glory to my Father , in the light of splendor that clothed Adam ..’

    The Vilnius Icon , an early glimpse of the Will and Mercy of The Father , to cloth the creation itself , in light and glory – same true for what we celebrate in this Blessed Season as well , placing – ‘ love and glory to the Most Holy Trinity , in every scene of Nativity .. in the hearts of all who worked to make same possible and in all who behold same ‘….

  6. It’s the ugliest thing I have ever seen and I guess if this site only wants positive reviews this will not be posted. However I speak the truth.

  7. Each to ones own thoghts. it reflects the mentality of the Holy Father who requested it to be displayed. It definitely is not my style but different artists see things differntly. Living in the USA I don’t have to look at it. Our Salvation does not depnd on it. Much more should be prayed that we be Faithful to Jesus.

    • Apparently you did not read the article, or perhaps you did not comprehend what it said…..the Holy Father did not “request it to be displayed” as you falsely allege. I suggest you go back and read the piece or do some further research as to how it came to be placed this year in Saint Peter’s Square before you sink deeper into your calumny against the Holy Father. .

  8. Like many features of Francisism — “no apparent connection” with Sacred Scripture or Tradition. Cf. Amoris. Cf. CCC 2267 on the death penalty.

    {The article quoted Pope Francis’ 2019 letter “Admirabile signum,” in which he said it is customary “to add many symbolic figures to our nativity scenes,” even figures “that have no apparent connection with the Gospel accounts.”}

  9. Ask young children what they think of it. They will probably laugh, and wonder who the guy in the spacesuit is.

    So much for the Vatican cultivating a child-like faith.

  10. Its become the trend to have ugly and unusual things pass as “art”. Like monkeys supposedly “painting” or cans of Campbell soup being painted as something to contemplate.So sorry to see the Vatican engage in this. If a Nativity fails to inspire, or evoke a religious sensibility and thoughts of the savior, a sense of piety or thanksgiving, it fails. FAILS. Period. THIS ugly piece of art fails.It looks like something 5th graders could make. No astronaut-like being belongs in the nativity. What on earth is wrong with the people making these decisions at the Vatican? They are asleep at the switch and alienating more and more of the faithful by their broad disregard of conventional behavior and Catholic values..

    • Did you not read the article….school children DID make it. It was created by children at an art school along with their teachers. Would you consider something made by YOUR school-aged child to be “UGLY” or would you view it and appreciate it in the context within which it was created, and by whom? Cannot we be charitable during this season of our Lord’s birth, and be thankful that children – even from the 1960s – were interested enough in the Biblical Christmas Story to even create such a piece of art, and honor the Christ Child and His Blessed Mother in their own childlike and primitive way?

      • If these were “really” created by school children and not encouraged into existence by the teachers at the art school, clearly their minds have already been corrupted and are not learning the basics of art education (e.g. drawing and shapes and figures). Children’s school art is usually not considered ugly by parents, but parents with a lick of common sense also know these “works of art” are not museum-worthy.

      • It takes more coordination to create figures like that than most young children possess.

        It’s not a question of being uncharitable towards the artists but rather a question of suitability & appropriateness for this year’s Vatican creche.

      • Correction – high school students made it, ages 14-18, not exactly “children”. Yes, minors, but everyone seems to think that little elementary school kids made this abomination, when minors in their mid-late teens should have known better, especially those raised in the Catholic faith.

      • First, it’s an Art Institute that generally refers to college age students. Second, the ambiguity of the crèche makes it a poor choice for the Vatican to display it at Christmas time let alone anytime. And third, the only place it should possibly be displayed would be privately with no connections to the Catholic Church. Personally I find it a terrible representations of the Nativity scene with possible interpretations into the demonic. It’s clutter of images and ideas are self serving for an uninformed artist or “student” and disrespectful of this momentous event. Also as an added note, I was an art teacher for the city of New York for more than 30 years with a master’s in fine art and a competent knowledge in art history from “primitive” to post-modern art.

    • Actually, fifth-graders would know better. Art done by kids has true beauty when done from the heart. When adult “artists” create childish art, it’s just winds up being embarrassing.

      May the farce be with you.

  11. We have now lost our Republic now we are loosing our Roman Catholic Church. The independent, insider, Jesuit Father Malachi Martin said 10 yeaRs ago that a representative Vatican no longer existed.

  12. Urk. The astronaut was real? I thought it was artistic extreme. Refusing to admit to embarrassment is just pride and rebellion. The Church should not be messing about trying to impress and what is wanted, thank you, is a true nativity with easily recognisable and properly represented human and animal (sheep, donkey,etc) figures made with craftsmanship. That will suffice, thanks. Indeed in this idiotic anything goes against nature movement, to represent humans and the attendant animals normally, representing normal appearance, is revolutionary, not the other way around.

  13. Oh my God! How far we have fallen…Our Spectacularly beautiful Nativity scene replaced by an ugly monstrosity! We have lots of soul searching to do as a civilization that could sporn this representation of The Coming of the Christ Child…God have mercy on us all!

  14. The Nativity Scene is awakening faith in the faithful. It’s a good sign. Vibrant faith is the need of the hour during these testing times. People of good will are meditating, contemplating, and deliberating the importance and relevance of Christmas in these festive times.

  15. It is most definitely a work of modern art. You know it is modern art when somebody has to explain to you why you should appreciate it.

  16. This is not the Nativity as it should be. The Nativity is not a art form! Really sad to see people have to change up everything and call it ART. I am upset the Vatican has allowed this to be set up for viewing. Everyone should be ashamed of them selfs.

  17. I appreciate this article for telling me that this “nativity scene” was created decades ago. I thought it was created by people who are currently high school students and so I was hesitant to say how bad it looks. Now I can freely say how unbelievably ugly and disappointing it is. There are clearly forces that are seeking to divide Catholics from each other and I have to wonder if this isn’t someone just spitting in Pope Francis’ face.

  18. At least we are talking about it. When did we last look at a Nativity scene and comment on it with such heartfelt emotions? I thank the artists for creating something that brings the birth of our Lord back to the minds of the faithful. That is what art is supposed to do.

  19. If this is “art”, then put it in a museum. The nativity scene at the Vatican should depict the birth of Jesus, not an astronaut. The holy family, wise men, and some animals has been traditionally sufficient. Why is this generation so unhappy they have to change all of the churches traditions? Maybe instead of feeding into this attitude the priests and Pope Francis need to help people see that the Catholic Church has survived for centuries where others haven’t because of our structure and traditions. If I were not a Catholic and visited the Vatican, I would wonder what was wrong with the members. I am growing tired of having to defend the church for not observing their own laws such as giving communion to abortion advocates, encouraging gay behavior with civil unions, covering for pedophile priests, etc. The church requires 2 years of study to be confirmed but I’m not sure I know why now. I’m very disappointed that a beautiful nativity with the Christ child and family is not displayed at the Vatican and visitors will be disgusted and have to go elsewhere to view a normal nativity. The church has become more concerned about things of this world instead of God, maybe it needs an exorcism to get the evil out and focus on the things of Heaven.

    • I guess one of the few benefits of Covid lockdowns is that few will have to see this creche on Christmas Eve.
      Hopefully we can look forward to something better in 2021…

  20. Hideous! – The only word to describe the figures. They do not encourage any form of endearment nor do they inspire the beauty of the occasion.

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