Pope Francis is in many ways the ideal Pope for the modern world. Not, unfortunately, the ideal Pope for Christians, but as an embodiment of Modernism he would be hard to beat. He has all the self-satisfaction coupled with vapidity, with his superficial virtues creating the crust upon the utter incompetence that defines our era.

The Vatican’s nativity scene, which was unveiled earlier this month, is certainly the kind of display we would expect from this pontificate. As I understand it, it is a sculpture that was made at an art school in the 1960s or 70s, and is thus a relic of the most superficial and ephemeral environments, from one of the most disastrous single decades in the history of the Church. It has been dragged out and set up in St. Peter’s Square, pretending to be anything other than the refuse of an era already slipping into unmourned oblivion.

This thing looks like a giant version of a child’s toy set and not even a very good one at that, but cheap figurines designed for toddlers with undiscriminating parents. While some of these “toys” may have had their origins in a ‘My First Nativity’ set, others seemed to have been culled from a mishmash of whatever was to be found in the toy box, such as the remains of a Knights and Vikings themed collection or figures from an ‘Alien for Tots’ playset. Meanwhile some of the animals look to have been constructed from bits of leftover shag carpet that daddy was too cheap to throw away.

Again, it is almost the ideal representation of the level of teaching coming from the Vatican at present: immature and lacking even the best qualities of childishness. It is simplistic without elegance or clarity with a lot of nonsense mixed in where it clearly doesn’t belong.

What Modernism Has Done to Art

Having this thing proudly displayed under the shadow of the works of Michelangelo and Bernini, a mere minutes’ walk from the Vatican museums and the Sistine Chapel, is equally fitting. Here, indeed, is Modernism: plopping something that would have embarrassed a first-year art student, down amidst the works of artistic giants and declaring it brilliant because it is not like what they would have done. All the arrogance of adolescence with all the capacity of childhood.

While speaking of the scene, the Holy Father as usual embarrassed himself by trying to discuss the purpose of art. He commented that it “frees us from the desire to dominate others, makes us sensitive to their difficulties, and prompts us to live in harmony with all,” and that such works “generate empathy, the ability to understand others, with whom we have so much in common. We sense a bond with them, a bond no longer vague, but real and shared.”

You will of course note that glorifying God or illustrating the truth of the Gospel is not mentioned, only its possible benefit to current human society.

How a piece of ‘art’ that most people would probably require a diagram to even make sense of, is supposed to generate ‘the ability to understand others' is a mystery, though I suppose it could create a ‘real and shared bond’ through mockery if nothing else. All peoples love a good joke. Though that is itself a problem, given that this is ostensibly intended as a depiction of our Lord’s nativity.

For here is where most modern religious art that exploded during the same era that gave this monstrosity birth truly fail. They do nothing to glorify their subjects, for their subjects are often unclear and poorly defined. If anything, they degrade them and subject them to mockery.

A work of art has not only itself consider, but is also meant to direct our attention to its subject. This is of course why beautiful and impressive works of art have been used to honor God from time immemorial, such as the Temple of Solomon that was decorated with bronze statues or the Ark of the Covenant which was lined in gold and decorated with golden cherubim. A good work of art invites positive contemplation of the subject, reverence, and self-forgetfulness. The majesty of a Medieval cathedral, the tender loveliness of Michelangelo’s Pieta, or the glory of the rose windows of Notre Dame all elevate our minds and hearts, fostering a proper sense of humility and awe. Even the glossy prettiness of a simple Christmas card depiction of the Nativity can at least invite us to a sense of the warmth and tenderness of the scene.

What is the natural reaction to something like this year’s Vatican nativity scene, though? Even giving it the absolute most generous interpretation, it is not reverence. It is not awe or joy or anything of the kind. The absolute best the artist could hope for would be to applaud his originality or interest in the question of why he made the piece in a way that invites mockery for it resembling a cheap-looking abstract fever-dream of a scene.

That is to say, even a positive reaction to this piece of work would be focused on the artist, not on the subject. I think I’m safe in saying that no one would feel a sense of piety or admiration for a cylindrical doll with a mop of yellow paint ostensibly meant to be the Christ child. No one would be moved by the love shown by the blue-and-pink cylinder with a smiley face we’re told is the Blessed Virgin, or the other cylinder we’re told is Saint Joseph (whose form and expression actually calls more to mind the Poo-Bah character from The Mikado).

Religious ‘art’ of this sort forgets entirely the duty owed to its subject. It gives no thought to what effect the scene may have on people’s perceptions of Christ or the Holy Family. It only asks what effect it will have on people’s perception of the artist. It expects to be praised for its originality, its creativity, and its strikingly bold departure from the norm.

It is all about you, the artist: how you can be original, how you can draw attention to yourself by doing something “different.” Or, conversely, it’s about the patron who displays it or the viewer who claims to admire it, in order to show off their sophistication and taste, their rare ability to see past the ordinary and perceive the beauty and truth in what is ‘bold and original.’

How Western Tradition Informed Art

This masturbatory cycle of self-celebration is precisely what modernist art seems designed to evoke, and what the traditional values of art obstructed. Beauty, order, and correctness of representation impose boundaries and limits upon the artist. In fact, this is the very argument that the modernist artist pleads as his excuse for creating what he does, but in fact it tells against him. Boundaries and limits are the marks of something real, something that cannot simply be ‘declared’ art by a majority vote or serve as an empty vessel of self-admiration. This kind of objectivity imposes standards, which demand a degree of humility. The artist is obliged to remember his subject and, in the process, the important fact that it is not all about him.

At the very least, he cannot forget the giants in whose shadow he stands. Operating in the same tradition and under the same standards as the likes of Raphael and Giotto, creates a clear line of continuity between them. The artist who sees himself in the same lineage as these masters would be unlikely to offer anything so childishly ugly as the Vatican’s nativity scene and expect praise.

This is, in a way, as tragic and appalling as anything else in this whole sad state of affairs. For it is not only the audience who is cheated and degraded, but also the artist. The modernist break from tradition deprives him of the possibility of ever even being in the same league as the great masters of the past. Unlikely as it may be that anyone would ever surpass them, the modern artist is deprived of even the opportunity of trying. Where Michelangelo surpassed the sculptors of the past, the contemporary artist does not even have the chance of surpassing Michelangelo, because he’s not even doing the same thing. The Western tradition of continual striving to improve upon the past, to grow beyond what was done before, has been all-but severed from the arts. Just as the superficial piety and kitschy artwork of the modern Church robs so many Christians of even the opportunity of truly living and being transformed by their faith, we are stripped of its treasures without even knowing that they exist.

That is the great tragedy of our age. We who are the heirs of Christendom are all-but denied the chance to contribute to it. With few fortunate exceptions, we are not so much living in the civilization that our ancestors bequeathed to us, as we are staring at it from the outside. Like outcasts looking back on the great house where we grew up but have now abandoned.

It occurs to me, writing this, that the cylindrical figures of this nativiry scene (particularly the spiky H.R. Giger-style “angel”) rather resemble husks of corn, such as swine eat. Perhaps someday soon we’ll come to our senses and remember that even the servants in our Father’s house eat better than we do and – having squandered our inheritance – come crawling back to beg forgiveness.

If so, at least we may have no doubt of our reception.