Sunday 22 December 2019

Deck the Halls: 4) Setting the Scene

The final Christmas decoration to bring to you on this last Sunday in Advent is the most symbolic for Christians like myself. It’s the Christmas Crib, also called the Nativity scene or presepio.

Some families have a set of Nativity figures that they have used for generations. These sets usually consist of small figures representing the Christ Child, Mary and Joseph, some shepherds and angels, and the Three Kings, with an assortment of sheep, donkeys and cows. These Nativity sets are then displayed in a model stable.

I have my own small Nativity set which I bring out every year, but it’s nothing compared to the huge presepio displays at the Vatican. Two years ago the Vatican presepio caused quite a lot of controversy, not least because it included a male nude figure but also because it was donated by an abbey with strong links to the lgbt community going back to 1256.

I’ll talk about the abbey in question first. It is the Territorial Abbey at Montevergine near Naples. It has always had a hint of the queer about it since the day it was founded in 1120. It is believed that the site of the abbey was once a temple to Cybele, a goddess whose priests were either transgender, intersex or eunuch. Well, why built a new abbey if there’s a perfectly good disused site already available?

A little after its foundation the abbey became the focus of an annual celebration of the miraculous salvation of a gay couple. This is still celebrated every year and includes a procession up the hill to the abbey by Christians and pilgrims with a special place for the Italian lgbt community, specifically transgender people and “femminielli” (men who do not identify as feminine or transgender). I’ll write more about the Cybele connection and the femminielli in February next year. For now, let’s return to the abbey’s gift of a Nativity scene to the Vatican.

This may sound strange, but the Vatican didn’t have a public presepio until 1982. In 2013, the first Christmas that Pope Francis was the Vatican’s incumbent, the presepio was created by the husband and wife team of Antonio Cantone and Marta Costibile. The display was titles “”Francis 1223 - Francis 2013”, a reference to the pope and to St. Francis of Assisi after whom the pope took his papal name. The added significance is that St. Francis of Assisi is said to have invented the presepio.

St. Francis of Assisi (c.1181-1226), famous for his love of animals and nature, may also have been in love with some young men as well. As with so many other personalities from the past it is misleading to think of them as “gay” in our modern sense. In the medieval period physical attraction between men, and of women to women, was a Christian virtue that did not include sexual intimacy. Love was good, sex was not.

Only four years after St. Francis’s death one of his followers wrote his biography. In it he wrote that before St. Francis embarked on a life of poverty there was a man in the town of Assisi whom Francis loved more than any other person. This man isn’t named but recent research by Franciscan scholar Kevin Elphick suggests he may be a known companion of St. Francis called Brother Elias of Cortona.

Throughout Francis’s life of poverty he switched gender labels a lot. He used male and female pronouns where we would use the opposite. He accepted for himself the name Lady of Poverty, which he received from a vision of an all-female Holy Trinity – not the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, but the Mother, Daughter and Holy Spirit. The medieval Catholic Church didn’t object to such gender-switching labels. That only began to happen after the Reformation of the 16th century.

There are several other lgbt and queer associations with St. Francis which are too numerous to go into detail, including his unofficial patronage of AIDS and HIV patients and his manifestation as a transgender African deity. Today I want to concentrate on the history of the presepio.

It is believed that St. Francis created the first presepio in 1223 in Greccio, a hilltown in central Italy. It was a static living scene with each Nativity character being played by real people. It was a novel idea and caught on very quickly. Over the decades sculptured figures replaced the actors, and then the whole presepio was scaled down so that it could be mounted on a table or inside a small church.

Going back to the life-size Vatican presepio of 2017 we can link it to the 2013 Francis presepio because they were both designed and made by Antonio Cantone and Marta Costibile. The couple produce religious statuettes in a traditional Neapolitan style. Their life-size terracotta figures for the controversial 2017 presepio were also based on traditional themes. However, what most people seemed only to notice was the figure of a naked muscular man.

Cantone and Costabile based their presepio on the traditional Seven Christian Corporal Acts of Mercy as well as the Nativity. One of these acts is “to clothe the naked” and the presepio for the Vatican shows another man handing the naked man some cloth to wear. Social media flew into a furore. Some people declared it was a deliberate attempt by the abbey of Montevergine to promote homosexuality! The presepio is shown in the YouTube video below and you can’t miss the figure in question.
Members of the Italian lgbt activist group Arcigay supported the presepio. They emphasised the fact that the Pope and the Vatican had accepted a presepio from an abbey with known strong links to the lgbt community and saw it as a symbol of inclusion and integration, something that extremist churches in the USA don’t.

With the abbey having such a strong lgbt background it is going to form the basis of an article in February in celebration of its annual procession of the femminielli and pilgrims.

That’s it for this year. I’ll be back on New Year’s Day 2020 with the first in my new “80 Gays” series, “More 80 Gays Around the World”. Until then, however you celebrate these few weeks at the turn of the year, I hope you have a great time and see you in 2020.

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