02 January 2010

Caravaggio painting of the Nativity 'burned by Mafia in the 1980s'

Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence, Caravaggio, 1609

Zenit carries a story by Elizabeth Lev, datelined 24 December:
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.

Full report here.

Web Gallery of Art carries this description of the painting:

The painting representing the Nativity was stolen in October 1969 from the church of San Lorenzo in Palermo, where it had been since it was made. The composition is less successful than in other cases; the contained and pensive atmosphere, however, shows that at this stage Caravaggio associated the idea of advent of Christ not with the joy of Redemption but with a future that was at best uncertain.

Under the roof of the stable in Bethlehem, whose side walls are disappearing into brownish darkness, shepherds and saints gathered to worship the newborn Christ-child in such a way that we can make out Archdeacon Lawrence on the left only after a second look, and viewers may well mistake St Francis for a shepherd. One figure, the patron, represents the church for which the picture was intended, and the other, the Order to which the church belongs. We cannot be entirely sure who Joseph, the foster-father, is.

The center of the picture is shared out between the figures who have come to worship. The naked Christ-child lies there on a bed of straw and some white drapery. Exhausted, the Holy Virgin is crouching on the ground behind him - wearing an unusually cut dress, which is falling from her right shoulder - looking at the child. The ox, which appears behind St Lawrence, is also looking in that direction. Above all this, an angel is flying down from heaven. In his left hand he is holding a banner on which the words of the gloria are written. His right hand is pointing upwards, as if, by also looking at the baby, he wanted to reassure the Christ-child that he really is the Son of God.

From time to time people say that the Church should sell all its treasures and give the money to the poor. How do you sell a stained-glass window made as an expression of faith? How do you sell Michaelangelo's Pietà? How do you sell Manila Cathedral? To whom would you sell these? Wealthy persons who have built their fortune on the bakcs of the poor?

The late English journalist Malcolm Muggeridge found his faith in Calcutta when he visited a home there belonging to the Missionaries of Charity, Blessed Mother Teresa's group, and discovered a beautiful monstrance in the chapel that someone had given. Mother Teresa happily accepted this, as only the best was good enough for God. She didn't say to the donor 'why don't you give the money instead for the poor?' The experience of Muggeridge led to his writing Something Beautiful for God.

Back in 2005 while doing mission appeals for the Columbans one weekend at Westminster Cathedral in London I was confronted after one Mass by a particularly obnoxious young man who was using this kind of argument. I knew from his accent that he was not from a poor background, but very likely from a privileged one. He really tested my patience but I also was aware that when we are young and idealisic we can be obnoxious, especially when we have a very narrow view of things.

Judas complained when the woman poured expensive perfume over the feet of Jesus in order to express her love for God for her as a sinner.

The Caravaggio painting was stolen, not only from the Church of San Lorenzo in Palermo, but from all of us.

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