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What Caravaggio's Unusual Nativity Scene Teaches About Christmas

The holy family depicted here endured struggles, as modern families do, and they met those struggles with faith and perseverance and obtained the peace, if only fleeting, that we see in this painting.
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Caravaggio's painting of the nativity is, in many ways, a familiar scene. Mary and Joseph sit beside the child Jesus, while an angel hovers above them. A shepherd leans on his staff, and an ox surveys the scene. But in an interesting twist, the artist also depicts two figures who are not mentioned in the Gospel -- largely because, at the time of Christ's birth, they were not yet born.

One of the figures, St. Francis of Assisi, is depicted standing behind the holy family. He seems to have arrived in the traditional, brown Franciscan robes, his hands folded. The other figure, St. Lawrence, stands in the forefront in his gold-colored deaconate garb.

The unusual additions can be explained by the fact that the painting was commissioned by the Company of St. Francis, a lay apostolate that was in charge of the Oratory of St. Lawrence in Palermo, Italy. When the company initiated restorations to the building in 1669, they commissioned Caravaggio to create this painting and to include a few of their favorite patron saints. The members of the lay oratory wanted to create a scene that people could relate to and, it seems, one that connected their apostolate to the holy family.

Yet the inclusion of these two saints is not the only anomaly. In addition to depicting people that did not yet exist, Caravaggio also conflates the Italian clothing of his time with the backdrop of the Middle East. It also features an angel holding an actual banner of praise. The holy family appears almost glamorous and perhaps a bit too put-together for one that has traveled so far. But then again, most nativity scenes are creative interpretations of this historic night.

And, in this case, it is the inaccuracies that can make the painting most effective as a spiritual inspiration. Caravaggio depicted the holy family as a group of people to whom viewers of the painting could relate. The figures bear no halos. Joseph looks a bit younger and more muscular than we might normally imagine, and even Mary's appearance in Italian dress must have helped her image to appear more relevant to onlookers. Caravaggio's unique interpretation helps to tell the greater truth of the story behind the painting and helps it to remain meaningful to us today.

Caravaggio took pains to make the holy family seem especially human. Mary is seated on the ground as a demonstration of her humility and her poverty, the Franciscan ideals of Caravaggio's patrons. In a time of recession, humility and poverty seem especially relevant to many of us. The child Jesus also lays on a cloth and some hay on the ground. Uncovered, he is vulnerable; but surrounded by his parents and visitors, he is safe.

In a way, the artist asks the viewers of the painting to enter into a kind of Ignatian contemplation. Caravaggio was asked to convey the essence of the nativity story using a few additional characters; perhaps Caravaggio asks the same of us. When we see this image, we must consider the entire story through new eyes. We ask ourselves: How would these holy men have reacted at the birth of Christ? How would it have affected our lives if we had been among the shepherds and angels that night? And how do we continue to be affected by it today?

This scene is a comfortable one in which to imagine ourselves: friendly angels, cute animals, soft hay. But it is necessary to think of the events in Christ's life that will follow: Are we willing to continue to paint ourselves into other scenes from the life of Christ? As he grows, are we willing to grow with him? Are we willing to put ourselves into scenes that are less comfortable, to walk with him through his Passion and death? Are we willing to place ourselves beside those among us are suffering and who embody Christ in our world today?

The holy family depicted here endured struggles, as modern families do, and they met those struggles with faith and perseverance and obtained the peace, if only fleeting, that we see in this painting. By imagining ourselves in that scene, by imagining it first hand, we become more aware of the hopes, fears and doubts that led up to it.

Caravaggio's nativity serves as a reminder to return to that scene over and over again and let us inspire it to make changes in our everyday lives, to be willing to be transformed so that we might more fully bring about the peace on earth and good will called for at that moment when the word became flesh and everything on earth changed forever. And more importantly, it serves as a reminder that, perhaps we are a part of that scene in a way that can't be depicted in any painting. That Christ knew St. Lawrence and St. Francis and each of us at that moment, that even before we existed on earth, we were truly present in the heart of that newborn child.

A version of this piece was the basis of a video reflection at