VATICAN – The couple stood in front of the new Christmas crib of the Vatican on St. Peter’s Square, trying to understand exactly what they are looking at.
The three sages, life-size and cylindrical, looked as if they were made of drums with ceramic oil. Joseph and Mary, also in the form of torpedoes, seemed like huge Weebles about the Bible. Two enigmatic, totem figures stood in the middle of the platform. One held a shield and a decorative spear and had for his head what looked like an overturned cauldron, carved like a raging Halloween Jack-O-Lantern. Another wore an astronaut’s helmet and held a crater moon in his hands.
“The one over there?” Giorgio Banti, 71, asked his wife Anita as they stared at the numbers Wednesday morning. She shrugged and read the information poster. “First landing on the moon.”
Every year, the Vatican discovers various nativity scenes, usually donated by the Italian city, which will be exhibited next to the ancient obelisk in the center of St. Peter’s Square. Last year’s artists carved the holy family, Magi, angels and donkeys, from 720 tons of sand on the beach. In 2016, an exhibition featured a Maltese fishing boat depicting the plight of refugees. The 2017 one highlighted acts of mercy with a man visiting a prison cell and another burying a covered body, along with a hanging pale hand.
This year, the Vatican has moved in a different direction, towards Castelli, a city in the Abruzzo region of central-eastern Italy, known for centuries for its pottery.
Between 1965 and 1975, students and teachers at a local art school there tried to revive the tradition by using ancient winding techniques – ceramic rings stacked into pieces like marble pillars – to create more than 50 Christmas-themed figures. They enlarged the Roman market of Trajan in 1970 and reached Jerusalem in 1976. They survived the earthquakes of 2009 and 2016 and the bad snowstorm of 2017.
Finally, this year they arrived at a big show, the “Church Yard of Christianity,” as stated in the official description of the nativity scene.
The reviews weren’t that hot.
“It’s disgusting,” said Ms. Banti, who looked in horror at the ceramic animal menagerie – chickens that looked like fallen meteorites, camels made of ceramic cubes. “Why do they have the one with the horns?” she asked. “What is it? A turkey?”
This criticism was intensified by conservatives who see in ceramic figures a further erosion of church traditions and the usual images to which they are dear.
“Awkward SciFi Vatican The Nativity Scene, ”read the headline in a conservative Catholic newspaper, which, like many conservative media and commentators, condemned the nativity scene. “One figure has often been described as resembling Darth Vader,” wrote the author of the article, who then attacked the idiot. “Although it looks more like Sontaran from Doctor Who to me.”
Mr. Banti, a university professor, thought his wife and all conservative critics were missing the point. It sought to provide a more historical context.
“What history?” his wife interrupted.
“Will you let me finish?” he said. “I didn’t interrupt you.”
His wife left his soul as he explained that he remembered this style of pottery from his youth; that it was a time and place when the landing of the moon dominated the secular and religious imagination; and that these harmless figures did not deserve all the insults they inflicted in the Philistine Italian press, and some writers even suggest that something demonic might happen.
“They could be ugly or they could be pretty,” he said. “But it’s not satanic!”
“Satanic?” asked Annamaria Zeppa, a retired teacher, who wore a beret and leaned on a ski pole as she stood a few feet away. She looked at a ceramic figure, perhaps an angel, trumpeting into a trumpet that looked like a roll of fruit. “What has Satan got to do with it?”
For some traditionalist conservatives everything. But they also criticize Pope Francis for the excessive spirit of inclusion that opened the church’s doors to relativism and, more literally, the fertility statues that some conservatives have thrown into the Tiber River.
Francis, who has shown an interest in space exploration, also seems poised to push the boundaries of the manger. Last year, he issued a document, “Admirable Signum,” in which he defended a more open approach to the manger.
“Children – but also adults! “They often like to add other people to the manger who have no obvious connection with the Gospel stories,” he wrote.
The late Maradona footballer has been a place in the manger of the Naples manger for decades. This year, the artisans of that city made a crib scene out of pizza dough.
Maradona and pizza are one. But the ceramic art of the 1960s is clearly far from pale.
“Postmodern Vatican cribs are provoking a wave of criticism,” lamented the headline in the National Catholic Register, another home of conservative disagreements during the Franciscan pontificate. It mourned “20 modernist ceramic objects,” including a “morbid executioner of satanic appearance.”
Art historians popular in Vatican conservative circles also considered the crib an unnecessary insult due to a plague year injury.
“It was a dark year and faith was challenged by many,” art historian Elizabeth Lev said said Correspondent Breitbart News from Rome, who is also her husband. “Maybe it would be better to give them a gathering symbol rather than an object of ridicule.”
“The distorted figures in the manger,” she continued, “lack all the grace, proportion, vulnerability and brightness that a man seeks in the scene of a manger.”
Looking at the crib, Maria Letizia Panerai, 58, said the ceramic figures were exactly what she was looking for in the crib scene.
“I like it because these are not traditional times and we don’t need traditional cribs,” she said. “It is a representative of our anomalous age. It confuses me, but this is a confusing year. “
“The only thing I don’t understand is that astronaut,” she added. “And that kind of monster behind him.”
“I see,” her mother Argia, 84, agreed, squinting through her sunglasses.
“How can you say you see?” she told her mother. “You can’t see anything.”
The daughter added that she did not see anything offensive in the nursery. The other thing was the neighboring Slovenian spruce that dwarfed her in the square.
“It’s an ugly tree,” she said.
“Shaggy,” the mother agreed.
The Vatican has not yet vigorously defended its tree or its manger. “Life-size ceramic statues hold a cultural heritage that is not immediately visible to the eye,” suggests the Vatican News, its official edition of the news. (And some Romans seemed to come to him.
“It’s special,” Marianna Sebastiani said, charitably, watching Joseph and Mary beside the baby Jesus, who will be draped in a red tarp until Christmas Eve. “Those who confuse me a little are astronauts. But they did it when man went to the moon, so I think it has something to do with progress. “
Cristina Massari, 52, a guide in Rome, also said it wasn’t as bad as she expected, given all the negative reports. In addition, in the year of the epidemic, she realized that there was something otherworldly, but also empathetic, in the manger that had suffered natural disasters and contempt.
“It’s a crib that had problems, like we all had a bad year,” she said. “If it worked, we can.”