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.