Greccio, Italy: The First Manger Scene by St. Francis
About Greccio and Saint Francis:
In 1224, remembering his visit to the Holy Land (especially Bethlehem), Saint Francis of Assisi had the idea to replicate the manger scene in his native Italy. He had a good friend, Giovanni (John) Vellita, whom he had met on one of his preaching tours. John was a military man and Lord of Greccio, just two miles away. John had renounced the ways of the world and was a follower of Francis.
John began immediately. People prepared torches and candles to light up the night. The manger was prepared in the cave, and the ox and ass brought in. When Saint Francis came to the friars’ hermitage, he was delighted.
The great evening arrived. People began to come in procession, carrying their torches and candles. Thus began the tradition of the manger scene (or Presepio, as it is known in Italy). The idea of re-creating a manger scene soon spread throughout Catholic Europe.
Today in Greccio, one can still see the stone—perhaps three feet high and two feet wide—on which the hay was placed. It has a brownish gray top and bottom, with a band of gray in the center. The top has a rough, shallow, V-shaped indentation. Here the carved image of the baby was laid. There were no figures of Joseph and Mary, just the two animals.
In the convent, the Chapel of the Nativity Scene, dug into the rock, and, within the dormitory of the friars, the cell in which San Francesco slept, are must-sees.
If you are there around Christmas you can also witness the Nativity scene as presented by the local towns-people. The performance runs from December 24th through Epiphany (January 6th). This is duplicated in many of the Italian hill towns and is not necessarily unique to Greccio.
Traveling to Greccio:
The Sanctuary is about 60 miles north of Rome, and about the same distance south of Assisi. The nearest train stations are in the towns of Rieti or Terni (15 miles). Get train & bus schedules, see fares & buy tickets here.
Address: Piazza S. Francesco, 2 02040 Greccio RI Italy
GPS coordinates: 42° 26′ 42.8208” N, 12° 44′ 59.9676” E
Tel: (+39) 0746 750127
Click here for the official website of the Greccio Sanctuary
Click here for a link to the Commune of Greccio website.
If you travel to Italy, and especially Rome, at Christmas time you will find beautiful hand-made Presepios in many of the churches and basilicas. Although there are many throughout the country, one of the most famous is the Basilica of Saints Cosmas and Damian in the Roman Forum, featuring hundreds of figurines.
Photo courtesy Wikimedia, Gunnar Bach Pedersen