Caravaggio's Nativity; Hope for Architecture

King's Singers Give Best Christmas Present Ever

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By Elizabeth Lev

ROME, DEC. 24, 2009 (Zenit.org).- The often forgotten penitential nature of Advent seems to have returned this December in spades. In the United States the pro-abortion, anti-conscience-protection health care bill will be moved forward on Christmas Eve while the hopeful images of the Nativity are contested, outlawed and ridiculed in the public square.

In Italy, where we are still reeling from European Union ruling banning crucifixes in classrooms, another piece of devastating news struck last week; Caravaggio's massive and magnificent painting of the Nativity, stolen from Palermo in 1969, appears to have been destroyed by the mafia.

The Nativity with Sts. Francis and Lawrence, painted in 1609 for the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo, is counted among Caravaggio's last works. The Milanese artist on the run after murdering a man in Rome had taken refuge in Sicily while awaiting a papal pardon. Caravaggio would receive his pardon, but die on the way to Rome the following year.

The immense oil-on-canvas, (about 8 by 6 feet) was stolen on the night of Oct. 16, 1969, from the Oratory, and despite the exhaustive work of police investigators and pleas from the art world, the painting never resurfaced. It remains on the FBI's list of top 10 art crimes.

This past Dec. 9, Gaspare Spatuzzo, a former mafia hitman turned "pentito" (the Italian term for an informer), revealed that the painting, damaged during the theft, had been burned in the 1980s.

Spatuzzo, who has been in prison since 1997, acted as a paid assassin for Filippo and Giuseppe Graviano, leaders of a powerful clan in the Sicilian "Cosa Nostra." Filippo Graviano, according to the informer, told him in 1999 that the Nativity had been hidden in barn and "eaten by pigs and rats, and so it was burnt."

The hitman's revelations also included extensive accusations that Italy's prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, had links to the same Mafia clans. Almost overshadowed by the art and politics was Spatuzzo's admission that he had personally played a part in the horrific murder of an 11-year-old boy, son of a Mafia informer.

This is not the first time Caravaggio's Nativity, worth an estimated $32,000,000, has been discussed among pentiti. In 1996, Francesco Marino Mannoia, heroin dealer turned state's witness, disclosed that he had been one of the thieves on that stormy night back in 1969, and that the work had been damaged as it was cut from its frame with a razor blade and rolled up. Mannoia claimed that it had been stolen on commission for a private buyer who had cried upon seeing the damage and refused the work.

Another informant tried in 1996 to negotiate the return of the painting for a lighter sentence while another still claimed that the work was propped up as a backdrop during high-level Mafia meetings.

All this adds up to a great deal of hearsay from a group of people who have poor track record in veracity. Gaspare Spatuzzo is testifying at present in connection with the 1996 Mafia bombing of the Uffizi gallery in Florence that killed six people, and will be asked to give further testimony on the Caravaggio question at a later date.

The confusing and contradictory testimony regarding Caravaggio's lost painting leaves room for hope, a timid flicker of optimism in a gloomy and sordid tale, much like the art of the great master himself.

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Church of the Angels

This year I spent a week of Advent in the Holy Land preparing for Christmas. After visiting many of the Holy Places I finally came to the most important site for these last few days before the Nativity of Christ, Bethlehem. Despite checkpoints, walls and a certain ramshackle air, this was an inspiring visit.

While the Church of the Nativity, an ancient sixth-century structure built above the grotto where Christ was born, deservingly receives the lion's share of the attention, I must admit I was captivated by another site, the Church of the Angels.

This church, purportedly built where the angels announced Jesus' birth to the shepherds in their fields, doesn't boast the venerable age of the rocks and trees of the Holy Land which stood as silent witnesses to Christ's life and works. It is a modern structure designed by Antonio Barluzzi in 1955. Yet it serves as an ideal bridge for those of the present age to contemplate the distant events of the past.

The exotically-shaped building, polygonal with five straight and five projecting sides with a high dome thrown over the top, recalls a tent of the Beduoin desert people. One can imagine the shepherds in their makeshift shelters sleeping on a hillside that chilly night of December.

Barluzzi studded the dome with scores of circular windows so that light pours in to the interior. The dramatic use of light adds a supernatural aspect to the solid walls much like in Caravaggio's paintings.

Barluzzi was an Italian architect who built eight churches in the Holy Land from 1914 to 1955, when he returned to Rome. A deeply devout man, the architect was very close to the Franciscan order and for a while thought seriously about becoming a priest. Collaborators noted that he meditated for hours on the holy stories before he even began his designs.

This extraordinary man united the sacredness and historicity of each site with an architectural language that underscores the meaning the Biblical event that took place there. Most of these churches contain ancient rocks where Christ prayed or preached or suffered, but Barluzzi takes the silent stones and gives them voices to testify.

Because of the architect's clarity of vision, the decorators were able to flank Barluzzi perfectly. In the Church of the Angels, stucco angels float between the dome and the drum, inviting every visitor to burst into songs of Christmas joy. Vivid frescos melt away the stone walls and allow us to glimpse the starry night when the first men encountered God in the flesh.

For this art historian, the Church of the Angels was more than an Advent meditation; it was a glimmer of hope for modern architecture. These churches, an inventive blend of past and present, tell a 2,000-year-old story with a freshness that captures the world-weary eye of contemporary viewers. Barluzzi shows us that devotion and art can still mix fruitfully and beautifully.

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A Joyous Concert

This year, a friend of mine gave me the best Christmas gift since my parents bought me "Bullfinch's Mythology" illustrated with art from the Met (I think this is what turned me into an art historian). Together with a two other Duquesne professors, our program director brought me to a Christmas concert by the King's Singers.

This remarkable British a cappella group was founded at King's College in Cambridge, England, in 1968. Over the past four decades they have changed their six members very rarely so that including the present formation the grand total of singers past and present is only 20.

Their style is charming and eclectic; they sing everything from Renaissance madrigals to modern pop songs, but what rendered this concert so special was their full-blown homage to Christmas, Christ and his mother Mary.

In the Renzo Piano's chic music auditorium, before a glittering crowd of Roman sophisticates, the Kings Singers explained (in perfect if highly accented Italian) that they were singing sons of praise in glory to the "Christ Child, Savior of the World."

The first half of the program was dedicated to Our Lady. A series of songs stretched from age-old hymns such as "Regina Coeli" to Renaissance-era pieces such as "There is No Rose of Such Virtue," to still others written just a few years ago, such as "Rosa" by Ivan Moody. These pieces seemed to offer a musical rosary to the Blessed Virgin that spanned not only across time but also across nations.

The King's Singers chose German, French, English, Latin, Spanish works and included a wonderful "Ave Maria" in Estonian. What better way to celebrate Europe's common heritage in Mary and Church?

The exuberance and freshness of the performance recalled the young student choirs singing charming love songs as they courted girls at a nearby school, except the King's Singers are supremely talented and dedicated musicians using their gifts to proclaim the beauty and virtue of Mary.

The second half offered a dreamy French winter love song, before erupting into a medley of beloved Christmas carols. First they sang and clapped and stomped proclaiming Christ's birth, then they evoked the haunting stillness of Silent Night. The elated Romans were lifted from their pre-Christmas shopping worries and left the auditorium humming and singing songs of praise.

As I walked among them I thought that while one may debate crucifixes and Nativity scenes, there is nothing to stop us from singing and smiling to proclaim the joyous news that Christ is Born!

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Elizabeth Lev teaches Christian art and architecture at Duquesne University's Italian campus and University of St. Thomas' Catholic studies program. She can be reached at lizlev@zenit.org