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Thursday, December 15, 2005


VATICAN CITY, DEC 15, 2005 (VIS) - A nativity scene, one of the most famous works of art to be housed in the Roman Basilica of St. Mary Major, will be presented to the public today following several months of restoration work.

  The nativity scene was created by the Florentine sculptor Arnolfo di Cambio - whose death 700 years ago is currently being recalled with a series of exhibitions and cultural events throughout Italy - between 1290 and 1292 at the behest of Nicholas IV, the first Pope from the Franciscan Order. The pontiff ordered Arnolfo di Cambio to construct a nativity scene in the form of a chapel, in order to encourage devotion for the relic of the manger, which according to tradition is housed in St. Mary Major.

  The sculpture has undergone interventions and alterations over the centuries, and only a few figures from the original nativity scene have survived: St. Joseph, the ox and the ass, and the three Magi. The most famous intervention was that undertaken by the architect Domenico Fontana who in 1590, by order of Pope Sixtus V, transferred the whole group beneath the altar of St. Mary Major's Sistine Chapel, which was then being built.

  The restoration, ordered by Cardinal Bernard Law, archpriest of the Basilica, involved studies on the work's artistic and historical context, and the technique with which it was created, as well as photographic studies and a series of scientific investigations on remaining traces of polychromy. The restoration revealed, among other things, that a sculpture of the Virgin with Child, which had long been considered to be a work of the late Renaissance, is actually the original of Arnolfo di Cambio's nativity scene, its front re-sculpted in accordance with the artistic fashions of the late sixteenth century.

  The restoration work was directed by the experts Arnold Nesselrath and Luciano Ermo of the general direction of the Vatican Museums. The nativity scene is currently on display in the museum of St. Mary Major, awaiting the completion of restoration work in the basilica's Sistine Chapel.

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