We knew, over a month ago, that it was coming.
It hardly softened the blow to see it.
The Vatican Nativity scene for 2020 is…well, it’s horrifyingly ugly.
This year’s #Vatican Nativity scene, revealed tonight, comes from a town in the Abruzzi region of Italy famous for its ceramics. Its creators say it’s meant to have a contemporary and unconventional look influenced by ancient Greek, Sumerian and Egyptian art. Photo: @dibanezgut pic.twitter.com/ozEeaQWJ6r
— Edward Pentin (@EdwardPentin) December 11, 2020
Contemporary and unconventional look indeed. Here are a few more views:
So the Vatican presepe has been unveiled….turns out 2020 could get worse… pic.twitter.com/xI2NMNn81r
— Elizabeth Lev (@lizlevrome) December 11, 2020
Why does statue of Mary in the Vatican's nativity set so ugly. It looks like something a toddler would make if he had access to concrete, sheets of copper and pasta. pic.twitter.com/W3cuSyecir
— Ave Christus Rex (@Avechristus_rex) December 10, 2020
The Vatican Nativity scene is officially unveiled. pic.twitter.com/hctFfZ4Ehj
— Cindy Wooden (@Cindy_Wooden) December 11, 2020
The official story on this year’s nativity scene, according to Catholic News Service, is:
The larger-than-life-sized ceramic figures in the Nativity scene are coming from a high school in Castelli, a town in the ceramic-producing region of Teramo, northeast of Rome.
The F.A. Grue Institute, a high school focused on art, is sending only a handful of the 54 sculptures that students and teachers crafted for the scene between 1965 and 1975, the Vatican said. In addition to the Holy Family, an angel and the three kings, there will be a bagpipe player, a panpipe player, a shepherdess and a little girl carrying a doll.
The scene will be displayed next to a towering spruce tree from Slovenia.
The tree, which stands almost 92 feet tall, is coming from an area outside the town of Kocevje, the Vatican said.
“This year, more than ever, the staging of the traditional space dedicated to Christmas in St. Peter’s Square is meant to be a sign of hope and trust for the whole world,” the Vatican said in a statement. “It expresses the certainty that Jesus comes among His people to save and console them.”
In a separate piece, CNS confirms that yes, that’s a spaceman you’re seeing:
The cylindrical ceramic statues surrounding Joseph, Mary and baby Jesus included a bagpiper, a shepherdess holding a jug and even an astronaut, meant to reference the history of ancient art and scientific achievements in the world.
My friend Joseph Sciambra, who has been relentless in trying to get people to see the depth of the homosexual crisis in the Church and its relationship to abuse, and has been lamenting our collective blindness to the magnitude of the problem, had an interesting take: he says this scene was “chosen with a purpose – to distract; and Catholic conservatives are falling for it. Every time.”
My response to him: It’s an effective distraction, because we have a right to expect the true, the good, and the beautiful from a Church founded by God. Intuitively, this is an offense against reason and sense making; a purposeful weaponization of ugliness.
It is meant, I think, to attack right order and aesthetic sensibility; whether intentionally or not, therefore, it is meant to demoralize us.
I can only return to my arguments about how we are in a war against meaning. In my original piece, I spoke predominately about anti-rationality and information warfare, but I think it would be appropriate to include the surrealist aesthetic as well. It still falls under the notion of things becoming increasingly Lovecraftian, as defined by Hilary white:
Something that is Lovecraftian is something that defies or overturns the natural, observable order of reality; it is anti-rational, like saying that a thing is not the same thing as itself. Lovecraft’s horror-fantasy fiction has a popular cult following in our time of radically destabilized conceptual frameworks; we are no longer sure of any of our former certainties about what life is for or how it is to be lived, and Lovecraft’s fiction speaks to this fundamental insecurity.
Hilary, who now makes her living as a painter of sacred art, and no longer just as a writer, no doubt could make a more cogent argument than I about the problems inherent in a lack of form and substance in artistic expressions, and how they dovetail with our “radically destabilized conceptual framework.”
In a piece last year for 1P5, Jane Stannus touched on the history of the Christmas crèche as a weapon against gnosticism:
[I]n order to subvert the Catholic belief in Christ as true God and true Man, Cathars encouraged people to think of Christ’s body “as something that was somehow more apparent than real; something intangibly ‘spiritual’, ‘mystical’, and distinctly non-physical.” They tried to sideline Christmas: Christ’s “real birth as a real child with a totally real body would validate not just human flesh but the material Creation that He needed to use in order to live in general.”
These dangerous ideas began to color ordinary Catholics’ practice of the faith. One particularly regrettable consequence was that, faced with the painful reality of their personal flaws and shortcomings, ordinary Catholics began to overlook the power of grace — available through prayer and the sacraments — to transform fallen human nature. For if human nature was irremediably corrupt, why work to overcome the weaknesses left by original sin?
With the popularization of the crèche, St. Francis and his disciples deployed a weapon the Cathars couldn’t hijack. Bypassing dry theoretical argument, nativity scenes expressed the truth about the Incarnation with an immediacy and an effectiveness that went straight to people’s hearts. Their wordless tenderness made it plain that human nature, family life, motherhood, and babies are divine creations of beauty and goodness, loved and redeemed by God.
The 2020 Vatican Nativity Scene has the opposite effect. Who could look at this image of the Christ-child — one I have dubbed “derpy Jesus,” not as an affront to Our Lord, but to the astonishingly untalented “artist” — and be reminded of the reality of the incarnational existence of a God made flesh?
This looks far less like a beautiful little child, and far more like one of the Fisher Price people I used to play with when I was small — a Jesus you could stick on the end of your finger; a cartoonish parody of man:
An apt display, I suppose, from a cartoonish parody of the Vicar of Christ.
Steve Skojec is the Founding Publisher and Executive Director of OnePeterFive.com. He received his BA in Communications and Theology from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2001. His commentary has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, The Washington Post, The Washington Times, Crisis Magazine, EWTN, Huffington Post Live, The Fox News Channel, Foreign Policy, and the BBC. Steve and his wife Jamie have seven children.