In a difficult year, many were hoping that the new Nativity scene unveiled in St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican would lift spirits and serve as a reminder that Christmas is about celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ. Instead, the display of ceramic figures, which included an astronaut and a Darth Vader or Sauron-like figure, has evoked confusion, mockery and disappointment.

“It made me think of bowling pins, with a baby Jesus as a ball,” that’s how one Italian woman described it. “It is a very strange Nativity scene. Hard to believe they did it.”

Every year, the Catholic Church receives a Nativity scene donated from a town or artist that it displays in St. Peter’s Square. This year’s ceramic creche display was created by students and teachers from an Italian art school—however, it’s unclear whether it was Star Wars or the birth of Christ that served as inspiration for the display.

With 20 ceramic statues, including a couple of conventional and unconventional animals, The Catholic Herald has labeled it “comically awful.”

In particular, it’s the Wise Men (I think that’s who the figures were designed to represent, it’s difficult to tell) that have caused the most controversy. One looks like either Darth Vader or Sauron, from The Lord of the Rings, and the other is clearly an astronaut.

I know that the Wise Men were following a star, but I didn’t think that space travel or Middle Earth were part of that equation.

The display also looks incredibly creepy and shadowed at night. It doesn’t reflect the awe of the birth of the Savior, but a place that you wouldn’t want to walk alone late at night.

As art historian Elizabeth Lev rightly said, “The Catholic Church has an incredible tradition of beauty, and yet, after a year of difficulty, we’ve put up something that makes people mock Jesus.”

She couldn’t be more right. With all due respect to the artists and their work, the Vatican should have rethought or given more direction to these creative men and women. In a year filled with challenges, tragedies and heartache, this display evokes a sense of dread, not hope.

It’s maddening since the Vatican is one of the most beautiful buildings in the entire world.

I had the great pleasure of touring Vatican City in 2004. It was a Wednesday, I believe, and I was there as part of a student tour of England, France, Italy and Greece. Our group nearly saw Pope John Paul II, who used to greet people outside that day of the week, but he was unable to attend due to his struggles with Parkinson’s. He died a year later.

My memory is not as clear as I would like, but I remember thinking about how grand the buildings were and amazed by the beautiful artwork. The Sistine Chapel, in particular, was magnificent.

But probably my favorite piece of artwork was Michelangelo’s “Pietà”, which sits just to the right when you first enter St. Peter’s Basilica. The haunting sculpture of Mary holding Christ’s crucified body reflects the humanness of a mother’s grief, but yet it’s serene as well. It’s powerful and elicits an emotional response.

Again, no offense to these Italian art students and teachers, but the only emotional response I’ve had to their Nativity is an immense sense of confusion. Maybe the school should pay a little more attention to art history and less to science fiction. There are many, many “Adoration of the Magi” paintings over the centuries that could have served as much better inspiration than Tatooine or Mordor.

Needless to say, this year’s Vatican Nativity is a dud, much like 2020. Thankfully, there’s always next year.