A sneak peek at the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square

VATICAN CITY — The Vatican’s Nativity scene will be unveiled tomorrow evening, but Cardinal Crescenzio Sepe of Naples and the artists who created the scene gave a sneak preview to journalists today.

Well, we were able to see most of it. The Baby Jesus has been tightly swaddled — from head to toe — with a white sheet.

The formal unveiling ceremony will be at 4:30 p.m. Christmas Eve. Until that time, the baby is under wraps and photos showing the whole scene are under embargo.

Before meeting reporters in St. Peter’s Square, Cardinal Sepe met with Pope Francis and introduced him to the artists who worked on this year’s Nativity scene. The cardinal, who told reporters he had to invite Pope Francis to visit Naples or the townspeople would have “martyred” him, said his favorite part of the scene is the poor mother who brings her son to see the Baby Jesus.

The mother and son, he said, are symbols for all the poor and simple people who find hope and salvation “in the Lord who is newly born.”

A detail of "The Beggar," a figure in the Nativity scene in St. Peter's Square. (CNS/Paul Haring)

A detail of “The Beggar,” a figure in the Nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square. (CNS/Paul Haring)

The figures are the work of the imagination and hands of artist Antonio Cantone, who said the figure he has the most affection for is described only as “The Beggar.” Roughly dressed and dirty, he’s sitting at the feet of the Baby Jesus’ manger.

“It’s no accident that we have him sitting closest to the baby,” Cantone said. “It’s an image of how the poor are closest to God.”

“He has nothing,” Cantone said. “If you notice, we’ve put the Three Kings’ gifts further away. The beggar brings himself.”

Amedeo LaNave, the scenographer, said his responsibility was the part where they ignored Neapolitan Nativity tradition. The scene in St. Peter’s Square does not have the backdrop of a village in the 1800s, like most in the Naples’ tradition do. In fact, it doesn’t have a backdrop at all. While the characters are all facing southeast, the rough structure sheltering them has cutouts all around it so it can be seen from every angle. And if you’re standing to the east, its background will be St. Peter’s Basilica.

“We’re calling it ‘la piazza nel presepe,’” or the square in the Nativity scene.

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