VATICAN CITY (ChurchMilitant.com) - Italian Catholics are petitioning Pope Francis to "bring back the traditional statues of Jesus, Mary and Joseph" after a universal tsunami of scorn and mockery swamped the Vatican's modernist manger in St. Peter's Square.
Social media commentators and even mainstream media — the latter normally sympathetic to Pope Francis — ridiculed the "monumental monstrosity of a manger," comparing the ceramic crib characters to Darth Vader from Star Wars and labeling it "a meth addict's garage sale."
This year's crib is "incomprehensible for many men and women of all ages and classes, for many fathers and mothers; especially for their children, who would like to see Jesus, Mary and Joseph as they really were, not with indecipherable representations," the petition urged.
Launched Monday by art connoisseur Italian Benedetto Riba, the online CitizenGo petition laments the "disappointment and bitterness" felt by "many of God's people in contemplating this set of ceramics."
"Although this Nativity scene is appreciated by a small elite of lovers of modern art, the common people do not feel it as something beautiful, as 'a living Gospel,'" the petition explains, noting that onlookers "do not experience the unspeakable joy savored in Greccio [Italy] by the people of the time of St. Francis in front of the Christmas scene."
St. Francis of Assisi is credited with creating the first live Nativity scene on Christmas Eve in 1223, after visiting the historical place of Christ's birth on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land.
On Tuesday, Italy's top art critic, art historian and parliamentarian Vittorio Sgarbi, launched a scathing assault on the manger designed between 1965–1975 by students and teachers from the F.A. Grue Art School, in Castelli, a town in Abruzzo, southern Italy.
"Stay home. Don't go and look at it. The artisans of Castelli in Abruzzo usually produce authentic masterpieces, but this has nothing to do with the Catholic religion," Sgarbi fumed.
"The characters look like astronauts. Even the sheep, ox and donkey are unrecognizable. Maybe [the pope] didn't know anything about it. But knowing nothing does not justify this obscenity. It does not justify the humiliation of Catholicism," the celebrity raged.
"I have a lot of admiration for Castelli's works, but this Nativity scene looks like a caricature, a fiction. Even the characters are humiliated," Sgarbi added.
However, philosopher Angelo Bottone, who hails from Abruzzo, told Church Militant that the Nativity scene, which was "a significant expression of our local art," needed "a proper introduction for those who are not familiar with its background."
Bottone told Church Militant that the original Castelli crib had "a Jewish and a Muslim man. They are not part of the selection displayed in Rome at the moment, but it is interesting to note that they are both portrayed as blindfolded, to signify that they did not recognize Jesus."
"The crib is not a historically accurate representation, but it shows Jesus being born in our lives," Dr. Bottone explained. "The Nativity is portrayed within the contemporary life of those who make the Presepe (crib). This is common in Italy."
"Any Neapolitan Presepe, going back to the 18th century, has the Holy Family surrounded by anachronistic elements such as the shops and the people of Naples," he observed.
The philosopher pointed out that the presence of the astronaut in the Vatican crib was in keeping with the Italian manger tradition of displaying "famous people from TV, sport, music, cinema" in the Nativity scene.
Yes, people put [athlete] Maradona or [politician] Berlusconi in their Presepe. Hence, fascinated by the man landing on the moon in 1969, the students [from Castelli] portrayed an astronaut offering the moon to Jesus, which is an act of Catholic devotion. It is a pity that this has not been properly appreciated.
Church Militant asked the Italian philosopher if he would call the crib 'beautiful' and say "it lifts the viewer to 'wonder, love and praise' as is the purpose of sacred art?"
Bottone emphasized that the crib "should be seen with the eyes of the children who made it. That's a charitable approach to art, particularly when you know that it was made by school children, and yes, I am sure they would call it beautiful."
"That Presepe wasn't meant to be part of a church and, as far as I know, it never was. It is kept in the school," Bottone replied, when asked if it was part of the Italian tradition to exhibit cribs with non-biblical contemporary characters.
Italian news agency ANSA reported that U.S. presidential candidate Joe Biden would feature in a crib in Naples by artisan Genny Di Virgilio followed by a figure of vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris.
Di Virgilio told ANSA that Biden's election victory was "one of the few good news stories of 2020."
A Rome-based art historian told Church Militant that Bottone's claim of cribs including contemporary characters was correct, "but was almost exclusively a Neapolitan or Southern tradition (hence not ecumenical and not understandable by over a billion Catholics)."
The historian also suggested that including an astronaut was "very dated because currently the conquest of space is not topical — and even less the figure of the evil warrior with horns and skull on his helmet."
"Here the inclusion of current events (they could include a doctor given the COVID crisis) is not so much contested as the style and iconography," he added.
Lucia Arbace, an authority on Castelli ceramics and former director of the Munda museum complex, agreed with Bottone that the crib needed "at least a press conference, which would explain its peculiarities to the world so as not to become the object of sterile criticism."
"The first appearances of the prestigious Nativity scene had the acclaim and consent of the critics," Dr. Arbace remarked, noting that without a proper explanation "the crib is at the mercy of the people, who will look at it and comment on the basis of their personal sensitivity without understanding its artistic and historical importance."
The Vatican has yet to respond to requests to provide an artistically and theologically credible explanation of the crib. Meanwhile, the criticism continues unabated with the New York Post commenting: "If it were a Broadway play, it probably would have closed on opening night."