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The Palermo Nativity

This is Caravaggio’s Nativity with St Francis and St Lawrence (1609, some online sources date it earlier but I don’t agree with them), commissioned for the altar in the Oratory of St Lawrence in Palermo. It has sometimes been called the Palermo Nativity as a shorthand reference. He did an earlier Nativity that’s often called the Messina Adoration. Look it up and see if you agree with me that it’s a lonely and heartbreaking treatment. While it was never his way to be overtly traditional, this piece is a little more conformist.

It’s not at home in the Oratory anymore because it was stolen in October, 1969. Cut from its frame and apparently rolled up in a rug, it has not been seen since. It seems clear that it was a mafia job, carried out by professionals under orders for that particular painting. Over the years informants and mafia turncoats have claimed to have information on the theft and they’ve spun lots of yarns. Those include that it’s used as collateral in large drug transactions and that it was cut up and sold away in pieces. Some of have said it was burned, another that it was buried, and one said it was destroyed by rats and hogs while hidden away in a rural barn. Many who are passionate about the case believe the Palermo Nativity is in fact long gone. But since 2017 authorities have been publicly hopeful that they’ll find it in some form or another. Let’s hope.

As for the painting itself, Caravaggio’s use of light was always outstanding and it doesn’t disappoint here. His illumination of the angel and Mary’s face almost seems to merge mortal and divine. The angel’s downward reach is met by Mary’s deeply soulful expression. Speaking of the angel, he’s handled beautifully but I find him hard to describe. I get a strong sense of motion and movement about him, for sure. At first he looks like he entered the scene with a sudden burst. But he’s also graceful enough to look like he floated quietly in and now hovers unnoticed. My favorite part, though, is the Christ child. Caravaggio did something very intriguing with him. He stripped off the swaddling clothes and gave us an exposed, vulnerable child alone on the floor. And rather than bathe the baby in divine light as one might expect, he only partially illuminated him. Most of the child is left in a band of darkness. To me that turns the infant Jesus into a mystery, one who will be perceived differently by different observers. Some will see him in the divine light, others will not, and no one will fully understand him. Either way, I get the impression of a child that’s destined to divide. It’s a provocative interpretation.

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