It is not what we expected, and not what most of us want. This year’s Vatican creche has been laughed at and ridiculed for looking like a science fiction story or children’s toys. One figure was often described as looking like Darth Vader, though to me he looks more like a Sontaran from Doctor Who. More excitable people called it demonic, pagan, and idolatrous. Conservative English writer Tim Stanley called it “absolutely terrifying” in a tweet. This tweet from Edward Pentin has a short video of the whole creche.
“At the end of this extremely difficult year people are looking for beauty, for something to elevate, inspire, and unite them, and the scene offered in Saint Peter’s Square gives them something else altogether,” said the art historian Elizabeth Lev. “The misshapen figures in the Nativity scene lack all the grace, proportion, vulnerability, and luminosity that one looks for in the manger scene. The entire point of this holiday is the second person of the Holy Trinity taking human form, born as a baby of flesh and blood, and there is nothing particularly human about the forms we see before us.”
As Colleen Dulle pointed out in America, Pope Francis wrote about the Christmas creche just last year. It “helps us to imagine the scene. It touches our hearts and makes us enter into salvation history as contemporaries of an event that is living and real in a broad gamut of historical and cultural contexts.”
Francis notes that people like to add other figures to their creches. “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.” But he didn’t mean characters from sci-fi, though. He meant more plausible characters. “From the shepherd to the blacksmith, from the baker to the musicians, from the women carrying jugs of water to the children at play: all this speaks of the everyday holiness, the joy of doing ordinary things in an extraordinary way, born whenever Jesus shares his divine life with us.”
The creche is embarrassing. It’s not the depiction of the birth of our Lord faithful Catholics want and the world needs to see. I’ve often complained that Catholics ought to be more careful about airing our dirty laundry before the world, or allowing our internal debates over theology and praxis to become stumbling blocks to those outside the Church. I don’t want to give scandal with this piece. I want to admit the obvious — this creche is comically awful — but I also want to try to put it in some perspective.
Ugly modern art is nothing new, and the Divine constitution of Christ’s Church does not protect the Church against such influences from the culture. More: that constitution includes the need to engage new cultures and discern what in them can be adapted and reformed for the Church’s use. When the Church encounters a new culture of, say, an indigenous tribe, or a society quite foreign to European aesthetics and sensibilities, She will experiment with blending some of their native expressions with the Church’s patrimony as part of the work of evangelization. It is therefore fair that She also do this with modern Western culture.
Such experiments can be messy, and sometimes they turn out to be failed experiments — witness this particular sci-fi tinged debacle. But this needn’t be something that shakes our faith in the Church as custodian over the Deposit of Faith. It does not threaten the Gospel handed down through the Apostles, whose mission to teach, sanctify, and govern was passed to their successors. Bishops or even popes can err in their prudential judgments. Peter was wrong in living out the teaching of the Church with respect to gentiles and needed to be corrected by Paul. Needless to say, this erring can extend to authorizing artwork that probably shouldn’t be authorized.
But this kind of erring doesn’t scratch through to the vital parts of the Church’s indefectible nature, and we shouldn’t let it get blown out of proportion. Even while this horror show is on display in the Vatican grounds, churches throughout Rome and beyond will hold beautiful and sublime Christmas liturgies featuring the best of the Church’s artistic heritage, like Palestrina and Tallis.
Within a stone’s throw of this display are examples of the most beautiful frescos of Michelangelo and of the most other-worldly sculpture of Bernini that the Church has lovingly preserved for centuries. Pilgrims a century hence will still stand in awe under the Sistine Chapel ceiling, and no memory of this nonsense will be preserved.