For periods of contemplation, meditation and restoration ,St. Francis of Assisi often withdrew to various retreats – grottoes, caves, primitive huts – in the areas of Italy now known as Tuscany, Abruzzo, the Marches, Latium and of course, Umbria. One of his favorite haunts – as of 2017 – was the mountainous area around Greccio, in northern Latium.
I thought about our recent visit to the Santuario di Greccio during my third evening stop to see the Christmastime illumination splendor on the facade of the Basilica di San Francesco where the Saint is buried.
On my two previous visits, I’d seen the beaming of the late 13th-c Giotto Nativity fresco (in the right transept of the Lower Basilica) onto the facade of the Upper Basilica of St. Francis….
…but the Christmas illumination splendor included yet another Nativity frescoed in the Basilica di San Francesco: the one linked to Greccio. Frescoed in the Upper Basilica (probably between 12917 and 1300), the fresco (attribution uncertain…school of Giotto?) depicts St. Francis’ creation of the first “living Nativity” in Greccio in 1223.
In 1223, wishing to commemorate the Birth of the Christ Child in Bethlehem, Francis proposed a plan to the Greccio nobleman Giovanni Velita with whom he shared a close bond.
Francis’ biographer – and fellow frate – Tommaso di Celano recorded that Francis sent this message to Velita: “I desire to represent the birth of that Child in Bethlehem in such a way that with our bodily eyes we may see what He suffered for lack of the necessities of a newborn Babe and how He lay in manger on hay between the ox and ass.”
Those words are projected on the Basilica as an introduction to the Greccio Nativity scene:
Velita complied, providing the requested setting and animals, and word spread rapidly among the local people. It’s said that multitudes arrived bearing candles and burning torches. Mass was said near the crib flanked by the ox and the ass.
Near the end of the Greccio Nativity scene projection, the friars and Greccio populace fade and intense light remains on Francis and the Christ Child.
Just behind Francis, inside the Upper Basilica, the 13th-c fresco reproduced in the facadeChristmastime illumination is on the wall to the right, not far from the exit:
Greccio in Latium and Assisi in Umbria are inextricably linked: to the first “living Nativity.”