Accessible Art History
Art History Mystery #1: What Happened to Caravaggio's Nativity?
Welcome back to the Accessible Art History Blog! This week, I’ve decided to start a new series called Art History Mysteries. These posts combine two of my favorite topics: art history and true crime! To kick things off, we are going to start with the theft of a work of art by a famous Baroque master! So to learn more, keep on reading!
The piece in question is called The Nativity with Saints Francis and Lawrence. It was painted around 1600 by the infamous Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio, who is typically known by just his surname. This work was likely started in Rome, but during the last decade of his life, Caravaggio was frequently on the move. He found himself in legal trouble on multiple occasions and lived in different cities throughout Italy to escape persecution.
Regardless of where it was started, the painting ended up in the Oratory of St. Lawrence in Palermo, Sicily. It is highly likely that this work was commissioned by the Conventual Franciscans who ran the oratory because it features the two saints most important to the group.
Upon first glance, this work appears to be a fairly traditional Nativity scene. The Christ child is laying on the ground, in a bed made of hay. The Virgin Mary looks adoringly down at her son. Josephy and a shepherd appear to be discussing the birth. Flying in from the left hand corner, an angel proclaims the birth of the Son of God.
The two saints, St. Francis and St. Lawrence, were likely included because of their connection to the oratory. St Francis of Assisi was the founder of the Franciscan order and one of the most venerated figures in Christianity. St. Lawrence was one of the seven deacons of Rome in the 3rd century and was martyred (via being grilled alive!) for his beliefs.
Viewers can see the typical Caravaggio markers quite well in this piece. Firstly, is his dramatic use of light and shadow, called tenebrism. The artist also utilized twisting forms and a compact composition to tell the story.
On the night of October 17–18, 1969, two thieves entered the Oratory. Brazenly, they walked up to the altar and cut the painting right out of the frame! According to police reports, there was also a carpet missing from the scene. They believe that the thieves used it to roll the painting inside and carry it out of the oratory.
The main theory is that amateur thieves stole the work because it had been featured on a television program only a few weeks prior to the theft. This show discussed both the artistic and historical value, making it a tempting target. Simple observation of the oratory would have shown that only a single, elderly janitor was present at night, meaning there was little to no security measures. This fact means that it was easy, even for amateur thieves, to break in and steal this priceless work.
As of 2005, the FBI has named The Nativity with Sts. Francis and Lawrence as one of it’s “Top Ten Art Crimes”. The bureau puts its value at around $20 million, but in all honesty, it is priceless due to its historical value.
Stolen art typically only has a 10% of its value on the underground art market. Stolen art is often used as currency in illicit transactions. Art crime experts believe it was sold on the black market, possibly to the mafia. There have been a few clues, but they’ve all turned up empty and the piece is still missing as of May 2021.
In 2015, the television production company Sky commissioned a reproduction of this work to be placed in the space originally occupied by the stolen work. They hired Factum Arte to create the piece. Using technology, photographs, and scans of other Caravaggio works, Factum Arte was able to create an impressive reproduction that now graces the altar of the Oratory of St. Lawrence.
As fascinating as art crime is to study, it is still tragic. Not only because it is a theft of beauty, but of our culture as well. Maybe someday, we will get lucky and the Nativity with Sts. Francis and Lawrence will surface!
Painting: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Oratory Interior (with missing work): Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons
Oratory Interior (with restoration): CC 4.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Caravaggio Portrait: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons