Assisi to Greccio: On the St. Francis Christmas Trail
Pino and I headed into Latium to the Franciscan sanctuary of Greccio on our first icy cold December day. We headed into the Valnerina and then south into Latium, medieval villages perched precariously on rocky outcrops along our route.
As we neared destination -now in Latium and no longer in Umbria, snow-capped Mt. Terminillo rose proudly in the distance, small villages nestled at the base.
Pino asked, “Perche’ San Francesco amava quest posti cosi gelidi?” (“Why did St. Francis love these freezing cold places?”) just as we arrived at the Greccio sanctuary, clinging to a rock:
Assisi’s beloved San Francesco came more than once to Greccio on his treks throughout Italy, preaching enroute. His first stop in the mountain town of Greccio was probably sometime between 1209 and 2014 but by 2017, il poverello (“little poor man”) of Assisi had built himself a primitive shelter between two trees on the rocky hillside. How did he choose the site?
According to legend, he met a young boy outside of the medieval walls of the town of Greccio and putting in his hand a lighted piece of wood, urged the boy to fling it as far as he could. Its trajectory ended on the rocky wall of a small mountain owned by a feudal lord of Greccio, Giovanni Velita. The spot became his place of retreat – and later, this “Santuario di Greccio.”
Called “the Franciscan Bethlehem,” the Sanctuary of Greccio is linked to the Saint’s trip to Palestine in 2019: his journey there sparked his desire to re-evoke the Nativity of Christ in Bethlehem.
The core of the Santuario di Greccio is la Cappella del Presepio (“Nativity Chapel”) built over the grotto where, on Christmas Eve in 1223, Saint Francis re-enated the Birth of Christ for the first time in the history of Christianity, creating a “living creche,” a medieval Nativity play, for the locals, peasants, farmers, and simple artisans.
St. Francis had received the authorization of Pope Honorius III to do so and was given financial help and support by the nobleman of Greccio, Giovanni Velita who had urged Saint Francis to give life to a re-enactment of the first Nativity in a stall, with ox and ass and manger on Christmas Eve.
The first “Living Nativity” of Greccio was frescoed by the school of Giotto – or followers of Giotto – in the Upper Basilica of San Francesco in Assisi from about 1295 – 1299:
As the fresco commissioned for the Basilica di San Francesco was to adorn a glorious Papal edifice, no humble peasants are present but only nobility in ermine-collared cloaks. And the fresco sets the scene in a magnificent church (the Basilica of St.Francis?) not in a humble grotto where the Greccio event took place in 1223.
That grotto is now the heart of the Sanctuary of Greccio:
….and the altar is built over the rock where it is said that Francesco placed the simulacrum of the Christ Child (an image of the Christ Child is placed there). One account, though, says that a nobleman present saw the Christ Child appear miraculously in Francis’ arms as he preached.
This is the account of the event by his biographer, St. Bonaventure: “…..Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem. A certain valiant and veracious soldier, Master John of Grecio, who, for the love of Christ, had left the warfare of this world, and become a dear friend of this holy man, affirmed that he beheld an Infant so marvelous sleeping in the manger, Whom the blessed Father Francis embraced with both his arms, as if he would awake Him from sleep….”.
A 14th-c fresco by the school of Giotto is on the wall above the altar depicting two Nativity scenes, one next to the other:
The scene on the left represents the “living Nativity” scene created by San Francesco in the Greccio grotto with the nobleman Giovanni Velita behind him in red and his wife, Alticama, too, nearby:
The scene on the right depicts the Virgin nursing the Christ Child, a contemplative, reflective St. Joseph crouched nearby:
From the grotto, one can explore the Santuario, stopping to see the friars’ refectory and the entry to the corridor leading to the spot where St. Francis himself slept on the rocky ground.
A 16th-c fresco of a friar admonishing “silenzio” is to the left of the door. with a 16th-17th-c fresco of cherub and objects linked to the Crucifixion on the right. The wooden crucifix you can see through the doorway marks the spot where St. Francis retreated for rest on the rocky ground:
And this is la cella di San Francesco:
Massive beams cover the wooden cells of the late – 13th-c dormitorio of St. Bonaventure nearby:
Near the exit of the grotto cells is ancient image of the Saint, reputed to be one of the oldest portrayals existing:
Leaving the cells, I stopped in a small room with open door where a seated Franciscan was available for Confessions. After sharing the Franciscan greeting, “Pace e bene,” (“Peace and good”), I asked the Franciscan if I could possibly simply ask him a few questions – and behind his mask, he smiled (I could tell by the expression in his eyes) a consensus. That friar was one of the four friars at the Sanctuary and Greccio’s Padre Custode (“Father Custodian”) the term Franciscans use rather for the head of the community rather than “Father General.” The Padre Custode cares for his other brothers (and the Franciscans also sometimes use the term “Padre Guardiano,” indicating the same role).
He was most willing to join me for a photo outside the grotto area of the Sanctuary, the live oak woods rising behind us.
Pino had already headed back to our van to warm up but I stopped in the church of the sanctuary – built in 1959 – before leaving.
Inside, two young boys were lighting candles before a terracotta presepe (“crib scene”) including Greccio villagers gathered around San Francesco as he kneeled before the Christ Child:
A wooden presepe nearby included also Francesco, logicamente:
Close to it, another young boy lit a candle before a crucifix….
…and just outside the church, a visiting family group paused happily together for a Christmas photo “per un’americana” (“for an American”):
(Note: I was much farther than a meter away from them for this photo: obligatory for us now as well as the use of masks unless with immediate family members).
The sun had dropped behind Mount Terminillo….
…as Pino and I headed off to find the village of Greccio where Francesco often went to preach during his sojourns in his grotto.
About six miles from the Greccio sanctuary, a cluster of stone and stuccoed houses huddled around the church bell tower: the town of Greccio (pop. about 1500).
Stuccoed houses of vivid colors surrounded the town’s one small central piazza, often with a San Francesco image painted on a wall…
Even the small pharmaceutical dispensary has a fresco….
…and the one cafe’ as well…
…where the fresco above the entrance depicts Assisi’s beloved Saint in Greccio for the “living nativity.”Looking up at the fresco, I wondered how many of the local grecciani are potrayed there, taking part in St. Francis’ first “Living Nativity” ….?