I spent a few days in Milan at the beginning of this month. I could have spent a few months, not gone to any additional places and still not seen everything that was on offer. Over on Facebook I have been boring people with album, after album, after album of photos from the trip, but these three needed something more saying about them so here goes.
As Christmas 1944 approached people all across Europe where entering their 6th festive season of war, Rather than angels singing ‘Peace on earth and goodwill to all’, the sounds of bombs, and air raids, bullets and death cries, where heard. The hope that Christmas births into the world must have been desperately clung to. None more than in Prisoner of War and Concentration Camps.
After Italy and the Allies agreed an armistice, in September 1943, the Italian military in Germany were interned just outside Wiestzendorf in the Stalag X-D (310) which had previously held Russian prisoners from the Eastern Front, however they had been moved out as it was considered not suitable because of the ‘poor sanitary conditions’. In December of 1944 some of those Italian PoW’s produced this.
This powerful nativity is tucked away in a dark room in The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan. The Basilica is grand and richly ornate,with gold and paintings and treasures, I don’t know if the nativity stays tucked away in this back room while some life sized plaster scene is sat before the glistening altar, or, if it is brought out to contrast with the lavish gold work, rich tapestries and famous art frescos at Christmastime. I suspect the former and probably for conservation rather than aesthetic reasons.
This is the blurb they give about its construction.
A boy Scout knife, a solid pair of small scissors, a door hinge used as a hammer, a small lamp fed with the tiny daily ration of margarine of each prisoner: the Nativity Scene was made with these tools. The persons were carved out of the pallet wood, barbed wire being their frame works. Afterwards, they were clothed with what was available including some lambskin and striped cotton fabric from toilet bags, parts of badges and strips from a chaplains cassock. Jesus is made out of a silk handkerchief and a bracelet becomes the necklace of the Magis and frayed horse bedding the hair of the sheep. Near the crib the ox is missing, it was left in the camp as a poor, yet precious token of those who did not return.
I found it one of the most powerful Nativity scenes I have ever seen. With probably the most powerful symbol of all being the Christmas Star made out of barbed wire, a symbol I will probably now return to again and again.
Here in the dying embers of Epiphany, The Star still offering hope to the world whilst echoing the Crown of Thorns.
Even as we hope, we have to live through sorrow.
Even in suffering, hope can be found.