Pope Francis statuettes ‘selling like hot cakes’

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.

Pope Francis statuettes 'selling like hot cakes'
One of the many Pope Francis figures in Naples this year. Photo: Rosie Scammell/The Local

Statuettes of disgraced former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi are less and less popular at the bustling San Gregorio Armeno market in Naples, where the new pope is 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 honour.

"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.

Pope: 'you made me look thinner'

"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.

"I like the classic nativity scene… No Berlusconi, no!" said Bianca, a pensioner out shopping with her husband for a nativity scene for their son, who has had to leave Naples because of the city's rampant economic crisis.

"The tradition had fallen away but now it's back in fashion," she said.

Following multiple sex scandals and trials and his eviction from the Italian parliament last month, Berlusconi is very much out of favour at San Gregorio Armeno, but the statuettes of Pope Francis are selling like hot cakes.

Artisan Genny Di Virgilio, whose family has been in the business since 1830, said the pope is his top seller but noted that "current affairs statuettes" should not be confused with the traditional nativity, which he said would be a "blasphemy".

Demand is so high for the pope that Di Virgilio cannot make the terracotta figures fast enough.

"Yesterday I had 80 of them and I sold them all by 11 in the morning! I had one guy from Florence who bought the raw terracotta model and took it just like that, unpainted!" Di Virgilio said.

The artist met with the pope during a general audience and handed him a statue of himself.

"You made this? Good, good, you made me look thinner!" Di Virgilio said the pope told him.

The pope's statue was "definitely" more popular than that of his predecessor, Benedict XVI, because "all the generations like him," Di Virgilio said.

Giorgio Sannino, 26, out Christmas shopping with his girlfriend, is one fan.

"We have to get one! We like this pope a lot because he is close to people.

"I think it is an important statue to have for any self-respecting family.

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Pope Francis meets Viktor Orban in worldview clash

Pope Francis met with the anti-migration Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban behind closed doors on Sunday at the start of a brief visit to Budapest where he will also celebrate a mass. 

Pope Francis meets Viktor Orban in worldview clash
The Pope embarked on September 12 on his 34th international trip for a one-day visit to Hungary for an international Catholic event and a meeting with the country's populist leader, and a three-day visit to Slovakia. Photo: Tiziana FABI / AFP

The head of 1.3 billion Catholics — in Hungary to close the International Eucharistic Congress — met Orban, accompanied by Hungarian President Janos Ader, in Budapest’s grand Fine Arts Museum.

The Vatican television channel showed the pope entering the museum, but did not show images of the two men meeting, but Orban posted a photo of the two shaking hands on his Facebook page.

On one hand, Orban is a self-styled defender of “Christian Europe” from migration. On the other, Pope Francis urges help for the marginalised and those of all religions fleeing war and poverty.

But the pope’s approach to meet those who don’t share his worldview, eminently Christian according to the pontiff, has often been met with incomprehension among the faithful, particularly within the ranks of traditionalist Catholics.

Over the last few years, there has been no love lost between Orban supporters in Hungary and the leader of the Catholic world.

Pro-Orban media and political figures have launched barbs at the pontiff calling him “anti-Christian” for his pro-refugee sentiments, and the “Soros Pope”, a reference to the Hungarian-born liberal US billionaire George Soros, a right-wing bete-noire.

‘Not here for politics’

From early Sunday, groups of pilgrims from around the country, some carrying signs with their hometowns written on them, were filing under tight security toward the vast Heroes’ Square in Budapest, where the pontiff will say mass to close the 52nd International Eucharistic Congress.

“We are not here for any politics, but to see and hear the pope, the head of the Church. We can hardly wait to see him. It is wonderful that he is visiting Budapest,” Eva Mandoki, 82, from Eger, some 110 kilometres (70 miles) east of the capital, told AFP.

Eyebrows have also been raised over the pontiff’s whirlwind visit.

His seven-hour-long stay in 9.8-million-population Hungary will be followed immediately by an official visit to smaller neighbour Slovakia of more than two days.

“Pope Francis wants to humiliate Hungary by only staying a few hours,” said a pro-Orban television pundit.

Born Jorge Bergoglio to a family of Italian emigrants to Argentina, the pope regularly reminds “old Europe” of its past, built on waves of new arrivals.

And without ever naming political leaders he castigates “sovereigntists” who turn their backs on refugees with what he has called “speeches that resemble those of Hitler in 1934”.

In April 2016, the pope said “We are all migrants!” on the Greek island of Lesbos, gateway to Europe, bringing on board his plane three Syrian Muslim families whose homes had been bombed.

‘Hungary Helps’

In contrast, Orban’s signature crusade against migration has included border fences and detention camps for asylum-seekers and provoked growing ire in Brussels.

Orban’s supporters point instead to state-funded aid agency “Hungary Helps” which works to rebuild churches and schools in war-torn Syria, and sends doctors to Africa.

Orban’s critics, however, accuse him of using Christianity as a shield to deflect criticism and a sword to attack opponents while targeting vulnerable minorities like migrants.

Days before the pope’s arrival posters appeared on the streets of the Hungarian capital — where the city council is controlled by the anti-Orban opposition — reading “Budapest welcomes the Holy Father” and showing his quotes including pleas for solidarity and tolerance towards minorities.

During the pope’s stay in Budapest he will also meet the country’s bishops, and representatives of various Christian congregations, as well as leaders of the 100,000-strong Hungarian Jewish community, the largest in Central Europe.

Orban — who is of Calvinist Protestant background — and his wife — who is a Catholic — are to attend the mass later Sunday.

Around 75,000 people have registered to attend the event, with screens and