The Vatican Nativity scene unveiled in St. Peter’s Square in Rome on December 11, 2020, does not resemble any manger scene most of us have ever seen before. Romans, tourists, and remote viewers all over the world are gaping at the larger-than-life clay figures and are trying to figure out why such an odd group was chosen to represent the birth of Christ when most of us are hungering for a return to normalcy at the end of an otherwise abnormal year.
This essay explains some principles of the art movement that was behind the style of these figures, gives an overview of the history of the ceramics-producing region where these figures were created, and speculates about some reasons why these objects of modernist art may have been chosen for what is probably the most-viewed Nativity scene in the world.
First Thing to Realize: Italians Go Loco for Nativity Scenes
On Christmas Day in Rome, as in all of Italy, it is a custom for families to visit several presepes (cribs) or presepios (nativity scenes)—the terms are used interchangeably. You find presepios set up everywhere in Italy during the Christmas season, which lasts an extraordinarily long stretch of time from St. Nicolas’s Feast Day on December 6 until the Feast of Candlemas on February 2. The scenes often include elaborate villages staged with dozens of villagers going about their daily lives around the central scene of the birth of Christ.
During my only trip to Italy, during the Christmas season in 1999, I was impressed with how many presepios I saw. I was especially struck when I saw that a simple, life-sized two-dimensional presepe cut-out of wood was set up even in the middle of a small traffic circle in front of the Church of St. Mary of the Angels in Assisi, where an old woman with a kerchief was waiting with one leg propping up her bicycle until the light changed. A much grander living Nativity scene was set up in Assisi’s city square, which I thought was fitting since, as everyone knows, Assisi was the home of St. Francis, who mounted the first manger scene.
I also saw, on display at bakeries presepios carved out of pannetone, Italian Christmas bread. Even if bread is not quite the expected medium for a manger scene, these pannetone presepios are sweet in more than one way, and they express the piety of the bakers and of those who love to see them in bakery windows every year.
In Venice, I was amazed to see a floating Nativity arranged on multiple gondolas in one of the canals as we zoomed by in a water bus, and I just barely managed to snap one photo. My last day there at St. Mark’s Cathedral at an early morning Mass, I was charmed to see a Nativity scene of Murano glass behind the altar rail, with each knee-high or smaller figure made of glass blown in a different color. I struggled with myself to not disobey the warning not to photograph in the church, and even though I’m glad I won the struggle, I’ve regretted not having that photo with a pang ever since, because I have never been able to find a mention of it on the Internet or see a photo of it taken by anyone else. I remember being pleased to see the blown glass Christ Child was gold, and Our Lady was blue.
Finally, on the way to the plane on my trip home, I even saw a presepio in the Milan airport—with a painted backdrop with the Madonna and Child floating on a cloud over the airport—while in a village scene below motorized figures did activities such as drawing water from a well, and a volcano erupted from time to time with clouds of white smoke.
But the most impressive presepio of all I saw in Italy was a realistic, larger than life sized set of figures set up in a stable near the obelisk in St. Peter’s Square when I was there for the opening by Pope Saint John Paul II of the Holy Door in St. Peter’s Basilica to begin the Jubilee Year 2000.
Because Italy goes so crazy for Nativity scenes, it was remarkable that it took a Polish pope to start a new tradition of a yearly Nativity scene in the square in 1982. For many years, the Vatican Nativity used figures that had been commissioned by St. Vincent Pallotti in 1842. St. Vincent, the founder of the Pallottine Fathers, had donated the Nativity scene to the Basilica of Sant’ Andrea della Valle for the celebration of the Octave of the Epiphany. In 1982, the Society of the Catholic Apostolate gave the figures to Pope John Paul II for use in the Piazza San Pietro.
Recent Vatican Nativity Scenes
I haven’t paid much attention to the Vatican Nativity scenes since my trip, but while researching this essay, I learned the Pallottine figures are no longer being used. Now new Nativity scenes are being brought in from a different region of Italy every year. The scene I found pictured from Verona in the year 2014 looked quite traditional and beautiful.
The 2018 Vatican Nativity was a sand sculpture, for example. Although it was nicely done, it was disconcerting to think of all the work and expense put into creating something so ephemeral from 700 tons of sand carted in from the beach at the Italian seaside resort town of Jesolo, worked on for weeks, dismantled, and carted away. The transitory nature of the sand sculpture shows the influence of one current art trend, artists quite often create ephemeral works that are destroyed as soon as they are made these days.
The Nativity Scene revealed in 2017 included scenarios portraying the works of mercy. In the scenario illustrating “clothe the naked,” an almost naked beefy man was being offered clothing. A gay website promptly posted: “The Vatican’s nativity scene has a hot guy in it.” You can imagine the general outcry.
That uncalled-for scene was prominently located to the right of the Holy Family, which was visually and spiritually diminished by the proximity of the large nude man and by the other large “works of mercy” displayed around it.
Mary in that Nativity was portrayed as a dark haired hefty woman dressed in pink and wearing an apron, which was another sort of diminishment, and not a respectful or appropriate way to depict the Mother of God.
In another year, a pile of rubble from a recent earthquake in Italy was included in the scene.
History of This Year’s Nativity Figures
As it turns out the drastically unusual figures in this year’s display have an interesting history. They are on loan from the town of Castelli in the Abruzzo region northeast of Rome, which is one of the major ceramics centers of Italy.
Castelli is in a remote mountainous area, and it became an ancient center of pottery manufacture from its proximity to plentiful supplies of good clay and running water. And there are plenty of trees needed for fuel for the kilns in which the ceramics are fired at the high heats needed to solidify the clay and to melt and fuse the glazes to the clay body. In the eleventh century, monks from the local Benedictine Abbey of San Salvatore taught the people how to dig the clay and produce a type of tin-glazed decorated stoneware called maiolica.
Castelli maiolica pieces from earlier centuries are treasured in the collections of many museums, such as the Hermitage in St. Petersburg, the Metropolitan Museum in New York, and the Louvre in Paris. Maiolica production was an important local industry—until the late nineteenth century saw the beginning of the industry’s economic and artistic decline.
Various attempts to revive this industry were unsuccessful, when in the first years of the twentieth century, La Regia Scuola d’Arte Cerámica F. A. Grue was founded. The ceramics art school was named after Francisco Antonio Grue, a master of maiolica, and founding father of a ceramics dynasty, which gained prominence in the seventeenth and the eighteenth century.
The school was created to train local students to continue Castelli’s artistic heritage and encourage its maiolica industry. The original school was transformed in 1961 into F. A. Grue Istituto Statale d’Arte per la Ceramica (State Institute of Art for Ceramics)—whose motto is, “Adapting to the changing artistic trends . . . anchoring it to the territory.” Another slogan used in their logo is: “liberi di esprimervi,” “free to express yourself.”
In keeping with those slogans of adapting to artistic trends and expressing themselves freely, the teachers and pupils made fifty four oversized Nativity figures with local clays in the decade between 1965 and 1975. All of the figures were once featured in an international exhibition that traveled to Rome, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Tel Aviv. Since some breakage regrettably occurred, so this year, only a few of the fragile figures in the collection were sent to St. Peter’s.
Why Do They Look That Way?
In that era between 1965 and 1974, traditional figurative art was out of fashion, and as expressed in the school’s slogans, innovation for its own sake and self-expression were dominant artistic trends.
One artistic trend of the times evidenced in the Castelli nativity is minimalism, which reduces forms to simple shapes. The figures also reflect another rule that was obeyed during that era, that artists should make their working methods obvious in the finished work.
The angel that towers behind the Holy Family has flat wings extending from his cylindrical body, which remind me a bit of cupboard doors left wide open. For some reason, the standalone wings in the Vatican display are separated from the angel’s body much further than when they are on display in Castelli, where they are aligned pretty closely. The fabricator of the angel figure deliberately made it obvious that the wings were created by stacking slabs of clay on top of each other, because the joins between the slabs are visible, and the slabs are minimally worked. The joined slabs were then curved slightly towards the viewer, and the top slab on each wing is cut in a sloping curve that might remind you of the shape of the top of a wing. A few scattered lumps of flattened clay pressed onto the slabs of the wings seem to hint at feathers.
The slightly more-realistic but still-primitive staring rounded angel face is topped with an exaggerated large head of yellow hair, which is parted in the middle and rolled up into a flip at the angel’s shoulders, if you can call them shoulders, with the strands made from long rolls of clay. A few locks of clay rolls extend down past the shoulders alongside a smooth plate-sized chest. In the middle, below the chest plate, are two slightly thicker clay rolls that might stand for praying hands, but without any arms indicated. The angel’s head is topped with a gold glazed incised halo, the only halo in the Nativity scene, and on the top of the angel’s head in the middle of the halo is a round reddish circle about the size of an apple, whose significance is beyond my ability to discern.
Most of the rest of the angel’s body is unapologetically obviously constructed by curving and joining clay slabs into tubes about eighteen inches high, which were then stacked to form the column of the body, with the joints between the tubes left visible. Below the earlier-mentioned rolls that might be hands, a smoothed tube of clay might be intended to indicate a waist, if clay angels can be thought of as having waists. On the bottom third of the column vertical grooves press down through several rings, which might be meant to evoke the grooves in a Greek or Roman column. Most of the rest of the body column above the bottom third is decorated with sideways projections of clay that remind me of nothing so much as a stack of little shelves that serve no apparent purpose.
The angel and St. Joseph are similar in how they both are made with round clay tubes with clearly visible joints between them. St. Joseph has recognizable hands and holds a recognizable staff in one of them. The Blessed Virgin has a similarly tubular form but the lines between the individual tubes that create her form are less obvious, though still perceptible. Like St. Joseph she has recognizable hands, and hers are folded in prayer.
Some have explained the presence of a similarly tubular astronaut holding the moon, and what might be a gladiator (although many see as a Star Wars figure—maybe Darth Vader), as being included in the same spirit as when a child will bring action figures or dolls into his or her home manger scene. I can relate to that tendency even at my advanced age since, as a former hippy, when I set up my home Nativity scene, I include an orange plastic VW bus with flower stickers on it as a votive offering for the sins of my misspent youth, and as a lover of Narnia, I include a golden painted plaster lion, who lies down next to a painted plaster lamb.
Wait Until You See the Christ Child
I’m writing this a week before the Christ Child figure will be unveiled on Christmas Eve. The following image is a spoiler, clipped from a photo of the Holy Family sculpture when it was still on display at the school. The surprised-looking upright baby Jesus is made with the same working method as the tubular angel. The Holy Child has ruffles instead of ridges separating the tubes along the column that makes up His body. His round head is covered with yellow glazed coils in rows that go down past His ears to what can be thought of as His shoulders, so He is a long-haired baby, which kind of figures. His face has tiny misaligned eyes and a tiny nose and mouth. Like the figure of the angel, the Christ Child figure’s hands are suggested rather than realistic. Below the flesh-colored glazed half-circles that are probably His hands, two pieces of uncolored clay stick out in the next tube down, and it’s also hard to tell what those are supposed to be.
Paradoxically, the animals, the ox and the ass, and the fowl, are clearly recognizable, with the feathers and fur and horns and the shapes of the figures skillfully evocative of the real things—although their maker(s), true to the philosophies of the day, still did not hide the figures’ origins as sculpted, glazed and fired clay.
But Why This Year at This Place?
The Vatican’s planned inclusion of these creations of the 1960s and 1970s in this year’s Nativity Scene in St. Peter’s Plaza was perhaps from a good-hearted desire to recognize the contributions of the historic Castelli ceramics industry, and perhaps to give it a boost. To my mind, the collection would have been better left in the ceramics school’s gallery to be viewed by tourists as a curiosity from a bygone era of nonrepresentational and deliberately crudely executed art. But then, who made me pope? 🙂
It may partly explain my interest in this topic to add that I took so many ceramics classes while pursuing a B.A. with a double major in English and Studio Arts: Drawing and Painting that I was one class short of adding another specialization in Ceramics to my Studio Arts major. And, for another thing, I took those classes during the same decade these figures were created.