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The Nativity of st. Francis

The Nativity of st. Francis

Only three years before he let go of that “brother body”, worn out by a life lived in humility, he created something that would influence the 800 days of Christmas that followed.

We are talking about Saint Francis, patron saint of Italy and Umbria, the Poor Man of God and a friend of animals: it is no coincidence that in one of his best-known depictions he is with the wolf of Gubbio or that, on this occasion too, the protagonists are two animals!

Living at the turn of the 12th and 13th centuries, Francis was born and died in Assisi, and even today it is Assisi the city that, amidst a giottesque fresco and enchanting architecture, keeps alive the memory of him and the values that this figure left within the Catholic Church.

It is 1223 when Francis, after receiving the recognition of the Friars Minor and his Rule, realises what will be remembered as the first living Nativity scene in history.

In Greccio, in a place that reminded Francis of Bethlehem, a manger with hay is created inside a cave and a donkey and an ox are simply led there. A crib which is different from what we would expect today, represented only by two animals, with which Francis revives the Nativity under the banner of simplicity and all the values he had championed during his life.

This event is reported in several hagiographies on the life of St. Francis and in numerous frescoes, such as the one in the Upper Basilica in Assisi. “The Greccio Nativity”, the thirteenth scene of the frescoes attributed to Giotto and his school on the life of St. Francis.

Francis’ is not the first representation of the Nativity: images recounting this episode can already be found as early as the 3rd century, with the depiction of the Virgin and Child Jesus in the catacombs of St. Priscilla in Rome.

Originally, the word “crib” does not even mean the Nativity, but comes from the fusion of two Latin words: prae, in front, and saepes, fence. Presepe therefore originally meant the “place in front of the fence”, i.e. a manger, the one Francis had made to tell the story of the birth of the Child Jesus in a whole new way.

Precisely for this reason, Francis’ Nativity scene is special! His simple yet innovative portrayal of the Nativity is still remembered today as the first of all living Nativity scenes, and perhaps it is thanks to that first manger, made 800 years ago to house a donkey and an ox, that the Nativity scene is still called that today!

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