In the spirit of a modern artist, the Vatican’s nativity scene might turn to the traditional defense of those who seek to defend the ugly, ‘I say it’s art, who’s to say it’s not art?’. In doing so, one is reminded of Pilate’s charge to Christ ‘What is Truth?’. 

Why this unnecessary obfuscation of the simple? It is simply a reflection of the modern age in which we live. A simple nativity scene would be exactly that, too simple. Irish Catholics who have experienced a deprivation of the holy mass will have been assuming the simple this Christmas. Namely that upon looking to the Holy See’s depiction of the true meaning of the season that they would see an image that they can relate to. They would see an image of the Holy family displayed adhering to the confines of beauty, and in doing so be drawn to it.

In being drawn to beauty, we naturally derive solace. The mechanics of which can be seen in the comparison between Ireland’s Caravaggio, The Taking of Christ to a walk through Ireland’s Modern Art Museum (IMMA). It is not that a walk-through IMMA is always bad, it is just that The Taking of Christ is clearer in its imagery to many, if not all the images in the IMMA. A litmus test can verify this; recall an interaction with a modern artist or a proponent of its value to people. In recalling the interaction, if the phrases: ‘the meaning is interpreted by the individual’, ‘there is no meaning’, come to mind, we can see the explanation as to why the nativity scene has drawn so much ire.

There are many things in our modern era of which their respective meanings ebb and flow. In a visit to the IMMA, I expect to hear such utterances around meaning that eventually can be summarized as the meaning is subjective. However, when we look to historical institutions such as the church, one ought to see a continuity. 

Similarly, the nativity scene should be continuous in its depiction. A continuity that can guide us through a sea of change. It is the wish that is as basic as the relief one feels from coming home after a long journey in a new environment. For Catholics, the message is that ‘we do not want, as the newspapers say, a church that will move with the world. We want a church that will move the world.’

That is our wish for Christmas. 

Posted by Michael Sonne


  1. Fintan and Eithne Lalor 24/12/2020 at 1:32 pm

    This is a brilliant article, thank you.


  2. Indeed but the clue is in the location of the ‘Nativity’ scene, at the base of an Egyptian obelisk.


  3. Kieran Maxwell 27/12/2020 at 2:57 pm

    Yes I agree with the author here. We should expect continuity with sacred art, something that clearly reveals and communicates beauty and meaning.

    Give this year’s monstrosity at the Vatican I’m left wondering how the greenlight was given for displaying it? How can this at the top of our Church get a simple thing like this so wrong? It is worrying in many levels.

    For anyone wanting further analysis on this very subject, I would encourage them to watch this short video from YouTube blogger Brian Holdsworth; he is excellent, so succinct in nailing subject matter down and giving cogent arguments and explanations. Well worth a watch:


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