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Saint’s first crib scene at Greccio

22 December 2023

Michael Hahn marks the 800th anniversary of St Francis’s re-creation of the nativity


Detail from El Pesebre de Greccio (fresco, 1297-1300) by Giotto, in the Upper Basilica in Assisi

Detail from El Pesebre de Greccio (fresco, 1297-1300) by Giotto, in the Upper Basilica in Assisi

MANY of us remember the episode of The Vicar of Dibley from 1999, when Alice the verger had the uncharacteristically good idea of the village’s nativity featuring real-life animals. The tradition goes back much further than Alice Tinker: 800 years ago this month, St Francis of Assisi curated what is thought to have been the first re-enactment of the nativity scene to involve live animals.

Francis was not, however, the first to show reverence to, or re-enact, the nativity scene or the Christmas crib. In his time, at least two three-dimensional representations of the crib scene existed in Rome, and relics of the original manger had supposedly arrived in the city in the seventh century.

Early performances included two groups of clerics (representing shepherds and midwives) performing a set dialogue, and pulling away a veil from an image of Mary with the Christ-child. By the mid-12th century, more complicated plays existed, in which actors played the three Magi (each with very specific and prescribed character traits), Mary, and the infant Jesus.

The re-creation was quintessential to Francis. While the caricature of him preaching to the birds is over-emphasised, animals were nevertheless very important to him. He placed an ox and an ass (not from the Gospels, but of Isaiah 1.3 fame) at the centre of the drama. They are the real actors: there was no Mary, Joseph, or Christ-child. Likewise, Francis taught an active remembrance of the Gospel events, and this recreation was a very performative mode of exegesis, allowing those present to place themselves into the Gospel event.

Five of the 13 early legends about (or Lives of) Francis feature this re-creation. Some differences were introduced in the 1260s, in St Bonaventure’s “Major Legend”, but an overall narrative can be drawn out of these texts.

IN MID-DECEMBER 1223, Francis retreated to the hamlet of Greccio, in Rieti, in the Lazio region of central Italy. There, he summoned a particularly reputable nobleman, John of Greccio, telling him that he wished to bring to life the memory of the Christ-child, “to see as much as is possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how . . . he rested on hay”.

On the night of Christmas Eve, many spectators came as the manger was prepared, hay carried in, and the animals led to the spot. We are told that mass was celebrated, and Francis even started talking in the manner of a bleating sheep; from this event, “Out of Greccio is made a new Bethlehem.” The celebrating of mass at an event remembering the nativity underlines that the entirety of Christ’s life is present in this scene.

One of those who attended — anonymous in four versions, but named in Bonaventure’s account as John himself — was granted a vision, in which he saw a child lying in the manger: when a visionary Francis approached the child, he woke from a deep sleep, causing Christ to be impressed on the memories of all in attendance.

The hay used in the event became a relic in its own right: animals were reportedly cured from disease by eating it, pregnant women who lay on the hay experienced a trouble-free delivery, and many others were healed from an assortment of unnamed illnesses.

The location became (and remains) a site of pilgrimage; the construction of a church on the site meant that — as Thomas of Celano tells us — where the animals had eaten hay, humans would eat the body of Christ. Francis thus both re-creates a historical event and, in doing so, himself creates a historical event that enables others to contemplate both Greccio and Bethlehem.

The most famous visual depiction was created by Giotto as part of his so-called “St Francis Cycle” of frescoes, in the Upper Basilica of St Francis of Assisi, created in the final years of the 13th century. While a stunning piece of art, Giotto’s work is very different from the event as portrayed in (at least) the earlier Lives. Francis and the Christ-child now become the centre of our attention, and the two animals are barely noticeable, each being the same size as the Child.

Added into the scene in Giotto’s depiction is the crucifix; this (in addition to the celebration of the mass, present in both Giotto and the accounts of Francis’s life) again reminds us of the inextricable link between birth and death.

The event is particularly famous in Italian cultural history, and the annual nativity scene in St Peter’s Square celebrates Francis’s re-creation of the crib as, this year, we mark its 800th anniversary. The scene merges the Bethlehem and Greccio events. The central three figures are Mary, Joseph, and Francis, with the ox and the ass close behind; three Franciscan friars; figures representing John of Greccio and his wife; a trough full of hay; and a Franciscan priest celebrating mass. Giotto’s fresco provides the backdrop to the cave. Just as Thomas of Celano said that a new Bethlehem had been made in Greccio, so both Bethlehem and Greccio are remade in Rome.

FRANCIS’s re-creation of the nativity scene, and the re-creation in St Peter’s Square of both Bethlehem and Greccio, ask us not just to bring to mind the poor and displaced young family at the heart of the Christian tradition, but to imagine ourselves within the Gospel events — probably also an aim of the Dibley nativity production. We are called to re-enact the event of the nativity, and, as Bonaventure taught in his text The Tree of Life, to embrace the manger, keep watch with the shepherds, marvel at the host of angels, and join in the heavenly melody.

Eight hundred years on from Francis’s recreation, many around the world need no reminder of what it is like to be a young parent who is poor, displaced, and has a young child to look after. Many in the Holy Land are experiencing that at this moment. Francis reminds us to put ourselves in the shoes of those whom society lays low, and who do not have the privileges and comforts that we enjoy.

At the centre of the nativity scene in St Peter’s Square, and in Francis’s re-creation, is the empty crib — and, in Rome, a figure of the child will be placed there on the night of Christmas Eve. This reminds us of the deep longing that is central to the season of Advent. Above all, we are reminded that the world, our selves, and our relationships (with God, with other people, and with the world) are not yet what they will be. Among many other metaphors, this is signified in Galatians 4.19 and Romans 8.22 by the image of the world as groaning in labour pain.

We are called by Francis not just to imagine — or place — the Christ-child in the crib at Christmas, but also, as Bonaventure wrote, to desire that Christ be born in our souls.

Dr Michael Hahn is Programme Leader for Postgraduate Programmes in Christian Spirituality at Sarum College.

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