This Nativity of Mercy is unique. There is simply no other work of art, no other representation of Jesus’ birth with the same characteristics. Born as a gift of beauty from Naples to New York, the presepe or presepio -as it is affectionately called by Italians of all regions- is the results of countless hours of work of the artists of La Scarabattola a prestigious artistic Italian firm. The original idea of representing the birth of Christ is traditionally associated with Saint Francis of Assisi who in Greccio in 1223 invited all to participate in the coming of the Lord by reenacting the scene of manger. Appropriately the Nativity of Mercy presents Saint Francis while speaking at the birds.
Now that you are in front of the Nativity of Mercy, please take a moment of silence to contemplate the whole. Starting at the center where the baby Jesus lays with Mary and Saint Joseph (under the title Misericordiae Vultus - the face of mercy – the title of the Bull announcing the Year of Mercy by Pope Francis). Then proceed to the right seeking the representation of The Prodigal Son by Rembrandt. The painting and the figurines represent the act of the merciful father who welcomes his son “like an expecting women who feels the child in her.” The painting represents the spiritual homecoming of all of humankind. The prodigal child is being welcomed his father. He is dressed in rags – rags that betray the great misery that lies behind him. Even his head has been shaven – like that of a common prisoner whose name has been replaced by a number. The left foot slipped out of its worn sandal, is scarred. The right foot, only partially covered by a broken sandal, also speaks of suffering and misery. This is a man disposed of everything … except for one thing – his sword on his right hip, the only remaining sign of dignity, the badge of his nobility. The sword is the symbol of his sonship. Henri Nouwen in his book The Return of the Prodigal Son wrote eloquently about this painting.
This is not the only painting to which the Nativity of Mercy makes explicit reference. On the other side of the installation it is possible to admire the figurines inspired by The Seven Works of Mercy painted by Caravaggio. This large painting –of which the copy is exposed at the Basilica of Old Saint Patrick- was produced in Naples by Caravaggio as a veritable hymn of mercy with the seven scenes of virtue. In the Nativity crib it is possible to recognize Saint Martin of Tour who gives his cloth to a sick, naked man (visit the sick; cloth the naked); then to the right a daughter is giving food to his father in prison (reference to an old Roman story of pietas involving Cimone and Pero); Samson drinking from the jawbone of an ass (to give drink to the thirsty); the porters with the body in the back (to bury the dead). The last corporal work of mercy, welcome the stranger is symbolized by a boat that landed on a coast, full of children of all ethnic groups extending their arms in search of warmth.
The Nativity of Mercy is a new expression of an old and rich tradition. In the Neapolitan crib, the Nativity is steeped in reality. Roberto De Simone has written eloquently about it in his book, The Neapolitan Crib. The sacred merges with everyday life in all its aspects, even the profane. The advent of Christ and the embrace of true faithfulness there is an invitation to redemption for all. Jesus birth invites all to change, to consider the possibility of being merciful and loving. The relationship of each, individual actor on the crib, with the presence of the Devine is the key to understand the story which is unfolding. Take your time to savor it.
After a brief moment of reflection in front of the child Jesus, it might be preferable to appreciate the nativity moving to the right (counter clock). Some elements of the crib are very close to the Gospel story; some others are legendary, expression of the vitality of the human response to the nativity of Jesus.