Pope Francis has chosen Giotto’s 14th century fresco of the Nativity in Assisi for his Christmas card this year, accompanied by a verse from Isaiah on its reverse.
The 1313 masterpiece, located in the lower basilica of St. Francis in Assisi, is the only one of its kind in the world where a nativity scene has two baby Jesuses to express the human and divine nature of Christ.
Giotto interprets the divine aspect through the blue that shines in the night of Bethlehem, and the painting itself “broadens and expands” his narration of the scene “to tell a true story, not a fairy tale,” according to Enzo Fortunato, press officer of the Sacred Convent of Assisi.
He added that the use of blue “moves and captures everyone, pilgrim or tourist. Those who enter the basilica remain fascinated. A deep, luminous color, above all royal and real.”
In a Dec. 6 article in Corriere della Sera, Fortunato explains that the Pope “is emphasizing three ‘terribly human’ gestures” through the image. “The first is represented by the two midwives who are located next to one of the baby Jesuses, embracing, wrapping and supporting him.” The embrace, he added, is a human parable: Jesus is no longer considered to be a stranger but “a part of the humanity to which we belong.”
The swaddling clothes, meanwhile, are aimed at “recalling the need to alleviate the suffering of others,” the suffering of hunger through the symbolism of breastfeeding, and the suffering of the cold because Jesus has been “forced to leave his native home” and the swaddling clothes “support the fragile body.”
“It’s really here where we are called to perceive, through our gestures, God with us. It’s Christmas,” wrote Fortunato. He also drew attention to topographical points: the grotto and area of the shepherds. They represent “two signs of daily deprivation that become the center of hope,” he said. “And it’s these peripheries through which the Pope would like the fresco to help man to become aware of God through the gestures of everyday life.”
Also significant in the painting is the adoration of 28 angels, most of whom are praying.
St. Francis founded the nativity scene tradition in 1223 because he said he wanted “to do something that will recall the memory of that Child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.”
It was also his own personal devotion to the baby Jesus that sparked his desire to create the first nativity scene, according to St. Bonaventure:
“The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”
The verse from Isaiah on the Pope’s Christmas card is an abridged version of 9:5, and reads: “For a child will be born to us, Prince of Peace.”