On the night of October 18, 1969, thieves entered the Oratory of San Lorenzo in Palermo and cut Caravaggio’s last Sicilian painting, the Nativity, out of its frame. The painting was never seen again. It is considered one of the most notorious art crimes in history, second only to the theft of the Mona Lisa in 1911. The Sicilian mafia is believed to be behind the theft.
Caravaggio’s nativity is a vision of the first Christmas – but it is no Christmas card scene. It lacks cuteness, cosiness, even beauty. It is – or should we say was? – one of the most eerily lifelike and grimly imagined of all artistic attempts to conceive the birth of Christ in a stable. This is no picturesque, rustic building. We see it from the inside, as a dank, dark hovel whose rafters can be made out in the shadowy upper regions of the canvas. The people taking refuge in this place fit only for animals – the ox seems less a witness to Christ’s coming than dumb evidence of the lowness and poverty of the setting – are truly outcast. Mary is a proletarian woman whose ragged clothes and sad face have nothing divine about them. Her baby lies on a thin mattress of straw on the hard earth. The painting’s dominant colour is an earthen, worn-out brown. If there is the hope here of a new life, a redeemed world, it is a desperate hope only half-believed in by the poor who gather in a stable to see one more child born into a cruel world.