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Part of the Nativity Scene in St Peter's Square Part of the Nativity Scene in St Peter's Square  (AFP or licensors)

Behind the Vatican's Christmas crib

The life-size ceramic statues hold a cultural heritage not immediately visible to the eye, adding to the excitment and anticipation they bring as they recount the story of the birth of baby Jesus.

By Francesca Merlo

The giant ceramic sculptures, lit up on Friday 11 December in St Peter’s Square are there to represent and illuminate the story of the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, reflecting the anticipation of his coming. Pope Francis noted, during his Angelus on Sunday, that the  expectation we feel throughout advent is a joyful one, at the heart of the Christian story. It is precisely this joy that the crib in St Peter’s Square is there to bring. But this particular nativity scene tells of another story, too: one that is not captured with a single look.

It is perhaps this hidden story that has caused the criticism of some onlookers who have reacted negatively to what they perceive as a representation of the birth of Jesus that looks so different to more traditional ones.

The statues

The contemporary nativity scene, is in fact slightly different. Made up of a small part of a 52-piece collection, the nativity scene is composed of life sized ceramic statues, made in the typical style of Castelli, in Italy, internationally known for its ceramic artwork. It took over ten years for the students and teachers of the F.A. Grue art institute of the town to build and complete the full collection - from 1965 to 1975. 

The Nativity Scene from Castelli, in St Peter's Square
The Nativity Scene from Castelli, in St Peter's Square

One particular figure, which has been described by some as “astronaut-like” has raised numerous questions, as it is not made clear who or what it is representing. 

Room for all

In his letter, Admirable Signum, signed in December 2019, Pope Francis wrote that “It is customary to add many symbolic figures to our nativity scenes"…and that on top of these, “Children—but adults too!—often love to add to the nativity scene other figures that have no apparent connection with the Gospel accounts. Yet, each in its own way, these fanciful additions show that in the new world inaugurated by Jesus there is room for whatever is truly human and for all God’s creatures.”

The inauguration of the Nativity scene, along with the Christmas Tree, a spruce from one of Slovenia's best-preserved forests, took place with limited people due to the coronavirus pandemic. For this reason, Pope Francis said, “icons of Christmas” are now, more than ever, “a sign of hope for the people of Rome and for those pilgrims who will have the opportunity to come and admire them.”

The lighting up of the Christmas tree and Nativity Scene in St Peter's Square
The lighting up of the Christmas tree and Nativity Scene in St Peter's Square
14 December 2020, 14:28