VATICAN CITY (RNS) — A life-size crèche representing the Nativity will be unveiled at St. Peter’s Square on Saturday (Dec. 9), celebrating the 800th anniversary of a Catholic tradition long since adopted by Christians across denominations.
The crèche has enjoyed great popularity in Italy and beyond ever since St. Francis of Assisi created the first one in 1223 in the town of Greccio, near Rome. The saint, known for his life of poverty, his love for creation and his efforts for peace in the Holy Land, had recently received the approval of his Rule for the Franciscan friars from Pope Honorius III.
In the rocky terrain of Greccio, St. Francis saw similarities to the Holy Land and asked the friars to help him bring the scene of Christ’s birth to life. “I would like to remember that Child who was born in Bethlehem, and somehow glimpse with the eyes of my body the hardships he experienced due to the lack of the things necessary for a newborn; how he was laid in a manger and how he lay on the hay between the ox and the donkey,” Francis said, according to his biographer, the Franciscan Friar Tommaso da Celano.
Many came to help Francis, carrying lamps to illuminate the chilly cave where they placed that first Nativity scene. They celebrated Mass on the manger, certainly unaware that they had started a centenary tradition.
“For St. Francis, the humble humanity of the savior, needing help from his creatures, was enough of a reason to make the people of his time see this truth,” said the Rev. Emil Kumka of the Order of Friars Minor and professor of history of the ancient and medieval church at the Pontifical University of St. Bonaventure, Seraphicum.
“He achieved this with poor but very effective means,” he added.
The crèche that will be unveiled on Saturday was made by artisans in Greccio and attempts to re-create that night in 1223. A smattering of characters will frame the scene: the two nobles who helped St. Francis — Giovanni Velita and his wife, Alticama — three friars and a few pastors. There will also be the figure of a priest celebrating the Eucharist, to underline the connection between the birth of Christ and his death.
The Nativity scene, placed inside a structure made to resemble the granite rocks of the cave, is meant to be enjoyed from all angles.
A statement from the Vatican’s governorate explained that a fresco in the background will show the Nativity of Greccio as it was painted by the famed Italian painter Giotto between 1295 and 1299. In front of the painting, a statue representing St. Francis of Assisi will hold the figure of the infant Jesus, which in accordance with tradition is not placed until Christmas. Next to him will be the Virgin Mary and St. Joseph.
The hand-painted characters, created from fired clay, will be draped with original clothing from the Middle Ages. The base of the structure will be an octagon, to represent the 800th anniversary of the crèche.