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December 17, 2020 (LifeSiteNews) — This year, the annual tradition of the large-scale Nativity scene in St Peter’s Square descended into farce when the figures were revealed as childish and hideous products of artistic modernism. The figures were produced over the course of about a decade starting in 1965 and are reminiscent of the mediocre art of that time. One of the figures visiting the crib is an astronaut; others are unrecognizable. There is an angel represented as a bizarre, tower-like object with meaningless rings round it.

There are a great many reasons why this collection of objects is unsuitable for display as the Vatican’s Nativity scene. I leave it to art historians to decide whether it has sufficient historical importance to gather dust in a provincial museum somewhere. If it were not the season of goodwill, I might suggest it be crushed and used for road-building. But the simple and overwhelming point to make about it is that while it might claim to be religious art — art inspired by religious themes or values, or representing a scene with religious significance — it cannot possibly be described as devotional art.

The failure to distinguish these two categories is to blame for a lot of entirely inappropriate art in our churches. Consider the images showing the Stations of the Cross. These are designed to assist the user (and, yes, devotional art is used), to enter imaginatively into the scenes of Christ’s sufferings. This assistance to the imagination is the role of all devotional depictions of scenes. To do this effectively, it needs at least to be representational, and not, for example, abstract.

Again, devotional images of Christ and the saints have the role of focusing the attention in prayer, because that is what they are for: they are designed to be the focus of prayer. In order to do this they must themselves honor the person represented, who is being venerated, and bring out figure’s holiness. The Roman soldiers and some of the bystanders in the Stations of the Cross may be ugly brutes, but even a painting of a saint who was a leper, like St. Damian of Molokai, should bring out his inner beauty and not exaggerate his disfigurement.

The reason is not only that a beautiful image will hold our attention, and a repulsive image, obviously, repel it, but because sanctity and beauty are connected. However we define beauty, a beautiful thing is one that is not disordered, whose features are not out of proportion or out of place, and this is naturally attractive to us. God is beautiful because He is supremely well ordered. The saints become beautiful as they grow in holiness. Physical beauty is therefore a fitting artistic symbol of spiritual beauty. The innocence of children, and the serenity of old people who are at peace with God, are in real life outward signs of the inner person, even if such signs are fallible. Evil makes even naturally beautiful people ugly, in time: eventually one can see cruelty, sensuality, and egoism etched in the face.

A Nativity scene has a particularly delicate devotional role, because it is a scene for meditation, like the Stations of the Cross or a depiction of a martyrdom, and at the same time, the individual major figures are devotional images of Christ and the saints, which will be the focus of prayer in a way the figures in the Stations are much less often. Unlike the stations or a painting of some other complex religious scene, a Nativity scene in a church will be blessed, have candles lit in front of it, and be the focus of a great deal of individual prayer over the months of its display. More, perhaps, should be done to make these as grand, beautiful, and devotionally compelling and appropriate as possible than usually is done.

Not only is the Vatican Nativity scene a complete failure as a piece of devotional art — it would obviously be difficult to pray in front of it, and I doubt that many people will try — but its style is a deliberate rejection of beauty in art. It is the product of the movement popularized (if that is the right word) in the 1960s, which says art should be not about beauty, but about the artist’s existential despair or something of the kind.

The late Roger Scruton, a philosopher of art, asked of this movement:

Why should people want to desecrate the human form and the ordinary ideals of human life? And I say, you only desecrate what is sacred. Only something sacred can be desecrated. So there’s this cry from the heart here for the religious meaning of things. It’s showing the yearning for God and the sense that these things make no sense without him.

This artistic movement is a reflection of a world without God, and the despair the artist feels as a result. A more inappropriate medium for expressing the message that God is born in Bethlehem is impossible to imagine.

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Dr Joseph Shaw has a Doctorate in Philosophy from Oxford University, where he also gained a first degree in Politics and Philosophy and a graduate Diploma in Theology. He has published on Ethics and Philosophy of Religion and is the editor of The Case for Liturgical Restoration: Una Voce Position Papers on the Extraordinary Form (Angelico Press). He is the Chairman of the Latin Mass Society of England and Wales and Secretary of Una Voce International. He teaches Philosophy in Oxford University and lives nearby with his wife and nine children.