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Pope Francis inspires social message in nativity scene art

NAPLES, Italy -- Nativity scene artisans in Italy have taken Pope Francis's social message to heart this Christmas, giving a bigger role to ordinary people in their work and reviving the tradition's simple origins.

Statuettes of disgraced former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi are less and less popular at the bustling San Gregorio Armeno market in Naples, where figures of the new pope — named by Time magazine as its person of the year on Wednesday — are now all the rage.

“It's about simplicity,” said Antonio Cantone, one of the city's most prestigious artists, who sells fine statuettes in the ramshackle courtyard of a 16th-century palazzo near the market.

Cantone has been commissioned to make the giant nativity scene that will be unveiled on St. Peter's Square at the Vatican on Christmas Eve this year — the first Neapolitan artist to have the honor.

“I have based the scene on the message of Pope Francis,” he said, adding that it will feature prominently a pauper dressed in rags and a peasant and shepherd bearing humble gifts.

“There are no noblemen, except for the Three Kings,” Cantone said, adding: “The first to arrive when Jesus was born were ordinary people, that is the core of the message I wanted.”

Elaborate nativity scenes began in Naples churches in the 18th century to make religious teachings more accessible by including snapshots of daily life that people could relate to.

The custom was then adopted by the aristocracy and spread to ordinary people, becoming a yearly and much-loved tradition for millions of Italians.

The most traditional statuettes are painstakingly handcrafted out of terracotta, given glass eyes and painted — each one a unique work of folk art.

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“Nativity scenes are a serious thing. They can transmit a message,” said Cantone, adding that many popular additions — like a tavern setting — were intended as a warning against the perils of sin.

More recently, some artists have begun crafting more unorthodox statuettes — from football legend Diego Maradona to famous tenor Luciano Pavarotti — in a bid to raise their profile.

But Cantone, who started out as an art restorer and took up making nativity figures later in life, has a more academic approach to the craft.

He said his inspiration for the Vatican nativity came from the oldest, purest historical tradition “with no contamination, no excesses.”

Shoppers thronging the tiny street of San Gregorio Armeno, which is visited by tens of thousands of people a day in the Christmas season, echoed the idea of going back to basics.

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Crib figurines' artist Genny Di Virgilio works on a figurine depicting Pope Francis in Naples the day after he was elected on March 14. Nativity scene artisans in Italy have taken Pope Francis's social message to heart this Christmas, giving a bigger role to ordinary people in their work and reviving the tradition's simple origins. (AFP)

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