Rome's lost jesus

Rome's lost jesus

Procession with the "Bambinello © Romano Siciliani (KNA)

The theft of the miraculous statue of Jesus from Santa Maria in Aracoeli was an outrageous crime, and not only for pious Romans. The case has not been solved since 1994. But fewer and fewer are still waiting for the Christ Child.

A spectacular criminal case in Rome remains unsolved: 25 years later, there is still no trace of the baby Jesus on the Capitol. A copy has replaced the "Bambinello," that chubby-cheeked little Savior, richly hung with jewels, who for generations of Romans was the epitome of the Christ Child. In the meantime, often not even the parents of the children who today make a pilgrimage to the image in the church of Santa Maria in Aracoeli know the miraculous original.

For true Romans, the Bambinello is something like the counterpart to the bronze she-wolf a few steps next door on the Capitol – a symbol of their identity. Wonderful his origins: a Franciscan friar in 16. According to tradition, the sixteenth century carved it out of olive wood from the Garden of Gethsemane in Jerusalem; angels painted it overnight. On the way to Italy, the beggar brother was shipwrecked; the box with the baby Jesus covered the last nautical miles to the saving shore by itself.

Thieves break in via scaffolding

Romans loved the Bambinello right away. They entrusted it with petitions and found them answered; they decorated it with golden stars, pearls and precious stones. In the Christmas crib, it plays the absolute leading role: upright in its glistening splendor, it balances on the knee of the Blessed Mother, who holds her hands protectively at her sides – a golden bundle of joy with a mighty crown and kind eyes.

All the more audacious appeared the coup of 1. February 1994. Thieves entered the building via scaffolding, presumably with the precious objects of the Son of God in mind. Unlike the poor stable of Bethlehem, no one kept watch in the church. The public reacted indignantly. Crooks in Rome's prisons called on offenders to repent, noble families offered ransom. The Franciscan friars of Santa Maria in Aracoeli declined. You don't buy Jesus for a few pieces of silver.

Forgeries discovered, original remains missing

A department of the Carabinieri specialized in art robbery followed tracks at home and abroad, as far as Argentina. In recent years, she discovered some fakes, but not the original. That it could appear on the art market has always been considered doubtful – it was too well known.

Remains the fearful amption that the robbers stripped the Christ Child of his treasures raw and disposed of the rest. A tragically absurd act: only shortly before the theft, most of the votive offerings had been removed from him during a restoration.

Franciscans kept all children's letters

The outrage hurt above all the adult Romans in their childlike soul. For the grab for the bambinello was an attack on the belief in an ideal world and all the more painful when nothing more than a memory remained of that belief. "Perhaps it wants us to wait for its return," says a churchgoer melancholically. Even the television dedicated an episode of the search program "Chi l'ha visto" to the Bambinello at Christmas time.

The youngest generation is the one that has been able to cope with the loss: they know nothing about the theft, and less about religious customs. Hundreds of children's letters used to arrive at the church every year; the Franciscans prayed for the intentions and kept each letter safe. It was also customary for children to preach a short sermon to the baby Jesus at Christmas.

Blessing with a copy

Traditions have "diminished somewhat," says Orazio Castorina, rector of the church. This December the visits of school classes were cancelled. Letter writing is going out of fashion anyway. The envelopes sent, Father Orazio said, are burned unopened after a certain period of time.

The Bambinello – or rather its facsimile – still leaves its now camera-protected chapel at Christmas. The biggest appearance it has on 6. January at a festive Mass with the Cardinal of the Basilica, Salvatore Di Giorgi. As Archbishop of Palermo, Di Giorgi got involved with the Mafia; later he investigated the Vatileaks affair, the spectacular theft of documents in the Vatican. Before the disappearance of the Bambinello had to admit defeat.

But as before, on Epiphany Eve, the 88-year-old cardinal lifts the infant Jesus above the city on the steps of Santa Maria in Aracoeli in a gesture of protection. Blessing with a copy for a dwindling crowd. (CBA)

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