Vatican Corner 12-16-18

This year the traditional nativity scene in St. Peter’s Square is not so traditional. For the first time it was made of sand, 720 tons. In November, heavy trucks brought the sand from the Italian seaside city of Jesolo near Venice, where every year since 1998 that city has hosted an annual sand sculpture festival. Beach sand is not suitable for this artwork since it is not very compactable. The sand that is used comes from the Dolomite Mountains located inland and is similar to river sand. Preparing the sand involves using water and compacting equipment to create a large pyramid of sand blocks. The result is a more durable sculpture that is able to withstand light rain. A large overhead canopy was constructed over the sand to protect it from heavy rain and there were plastic curtains hung on the sides to protect it in case of storms or strong winds. Carving the sand began at the top of the structure and worked down, resulting in a bas-relief of the nativity, 52 feet long, 16 feet high, and 20 feet deep. The scene consists of Joseph, Mary, the infant Jesus, angels, shepherds, animals and the three wise men following the star in the east. The bas-relief was unveiled on December 7, 2018 during the annual tree lighting ceremony in St. Peter’s Square. The lead sculptor was Rich Varano from New Smyrna Beach, Florida. He is an accomplished sand sculptor with 40 years of experience and has organized various international sand sculpture festivals, including the annual one in Jesolo for the past 17 years. He noted that he grew up in a strongly Catholic family and is glad his work on religious subjects provides the opportunity for spiritual reflection. He said “these elements of the Bible have always been used as a beacon, as a guiding light for people.” Pointing out that with the many challenges and conflicts around the world, these images give him hope “that more and more, as time goes by, we can be as one and have peace.” He said the idea for a sand nativity at the Vatican started three years before. He hand-picked three other artists to help him – from Russia, the Czech Republic, and Holland, each have “incredible skill. “ He said the design of the sculpture and a plan for its execution were very carefully laid out in advance, and methodically worked through. He estimated that the sculpting alone took over 175 hours of labor. Because work is from the top to bottom, he said there is no possibility to fix or change something above once the work below has begun. Some tools the artists use include sticks, trowels, and even dental utensils for the finer parts. Artist Varano said about the project that “it’s very special to be making one (sculpture) here in a place with so much history, so much culture, so much art and in the shadow of such masters.” “It is an incredibly humbling experience to be here.” Once the Christmas season is over, the sand will be removed from St. Peter’s Square and returned to Jesolo where it will be re-used for other sculptures.