Sacred artworks stolen across Italy

Baby Jesus stolen

A gold cross ripped from the altar of a church. Two 18th-century carved and gilded wooden cherubs. An entire tabernacle hacked from a wall. These are just a few of the objects stolen from Italian churches in early 2014.

- Catholic News Service

As a treasury of art and archaeology, Italy tops UNESCO's World Heritage listing, with 49 officially recognised sites. Mosaics, illuminated medieval manuscripts and Renaissance and Baroque paintings and statues have found their way from Italy into museums and private collections around the world.

Such riches make the country especially tempting for looters. And because museums are more closely guarded than in the past, churches have become targets of a growing share of art crimes, accounting for over half of all such thefts during the first eight months of 2013.

An especially notorious case remains: that of a 24-inch-tall statuette of Baby Jesus, carved from the wood of an olive tree from Gethsemane by a Franciscan friar in the 15th century and traditionally kept in Rome's ancient Basilica of Santa Maria in Aracoeli.

Known affectionately as the Bambinello (the little baby), the statuette was the centerpiece of the church's Christmas manger scene. The Bambinello would occasionally leave the church, borne in its personal carriage, to the homes of the deathly ill. The statuette was stolen in 1994 and has never been recovered.

The good news is that, despite the comparative upsurge, church thefts have fallen sharply in absolute terms. The 1,115 objects stolen from Italian churches in the first eight months of 2013 represented a decline of one-third over the same period the previous year.

'Dear friend, listen to your conscience,' Fr Bruno Antonellis said shortly after Christmas, publicly appealing for the return of antique cult objects taken from his parish church in the town of Sora, about 75 miles southeast of Rome. 'The church is always open. You should find a way to give back anonymously what you have taken. I don't want to call you a thief.'

FULL STORY Italian police work to stem church art theft (CNS)

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