Pope Francis is a divisive figure in the Catholic community. While some progressives embrace his relatively forward-thinking views on homosexuality, immigration, and climate change, conservative critics claim his openness is corrupting the faith. This year, the Vatican has taken an important step toward unity by presenting a Nativity that almost everyone can agree is deeply strange.
Unveiled last week, the scene features 19 life-sized, cylindrical ceramic figures of the usual suspects — Mary, Joseph, the three Magi, the Christ Child, sheep — as well as two comparatively contemporary visitors: an astronaut and a staff-wielding character that some have likened to Darth Vader from Star Wars.
The Nativity has been mocked for both its unconventional cast and retro, sci-fi aesthetics. In a scathing article that opens with the phrase, “It is not what we expected, and not what most of us want,” the Catholic Herald described the display as “comically awful.” More zealous opponents have called it “demonic, pagan and idolatrous.”
The figurines come from a crèche produced between 1965 and 1975 by teachers and students in Castelli, Abruzzo, a town known for its longstanding and celebrated tradition of ceramics. As bizarre as the scene might seem to our modern eyes, the selection of figures makes sense in its historical context. According to Marcello Mancini, a teacher at the school where the Nativity was made, the astronaut was added after the 1969 moon landing. The Vader doppelgänger, whose creation predated the cinematic saga, is actually a centurion that represents “a great sinner.”
“I’m sorry about the reactions, that people don’t like it,” Mancini told the Catholic News Agency. “It is rich in symbols and signifiers that offer a non-traditional reading of the Nativity scene.”
Meanwhile, the display has yielded several interesting interpretations on social media. One Twitter user suggests Pope Francis is the astronaut on the way to the moon “to seek the Maternal Mediation of Mary” while the evil centurion represents the right-wing archbishop Carlo Vigano, a vocal critic of Francis.
Despite the backlash, the Nativity has also created somewhat of a cult following among some prominent Catholic figures who appreciate its weirdness.
“The Vatican’s Nativity scene is awesome! I don’t know what I love more: the spaceman or the guy from the Star Wars Cantina,” tweeted Lino Rulli, host of The Catholic Guy Show. “I really want a small one for our home.”