The Nativity of Greggio by Saint Francis
One of the wonderful Christmas traditions in Italy is presented by nativity compositions (presepe) which are installed in churches, tiny chapels, piazzas, shop windows, almost everywhere. Many families use to make nativities together with their children and some of them keep ancient family presepe made by their grandparents. Every Christmas, Piazza Navona inRomehosts a Christmas fair where you can buy all components for making a nativity on your own.
The first nativity play was performed in 1223 by Saint Francis in Greccio (Lazio). St. Francis asked Pope Honorius III permission to put on a miracle-play about the birth of Jesus for common people. The nativity play took place in a cave with participation of live actors, a bull and a donkey. St. Francis preached about the nativity and at the end of his sermon, a real baby miraculously appeared in the crib.
Giotto depicted this episode in his fresco «Presepe di Greccio» (1290-1295 ) which is situated in the Upper Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Giotto presents the very moment when the child appears and St. Francis is taking the baby Jesus in his arms with reverence. In some ancient towns of Abruzzo, such asChieti, Giulianova Alta, the tradition of presepe viviente or live nativity is still alive. The most spectacular nativity play takes place in the mountainvillage ofRivisondoli.
The first sculptural nativity was created by famous Italian artist Arnolfo di Cambio in 1280. The remaining figures from the composition are held in the crypt of the Basilica diSanta MariaMaggiore inRome. You can see there the Virgin with Child,St. Joseph, the Magi, a bull and a donkey.
InVatican, there are two famous nativities installed in the Christmas Eve. In thesquareofSt. Peter, there is a big nativity composition including a few ancient figures presented by St. Vincent Palloti to one Roman church. In the Basilica of Saint Peter, there is installed an artfully made “ecological” nativity.
If you are going to visitRomein Christmas, don’t miss a chance to observe the miraculous Bambino Gesu, who participates in a very beautiful nativity scene in the Basilica of Santa Maria ad Aracoeli.
Traveling aboutItalyduring 3 years, I’ve made plenty of photos of nativities. We observed very interesting compositions in the tiny hilltown ofBertinoro,Emilia-Romagna. In the square near the cathedral, there stood full size plywood figures with faces painted in coal. Two years ago, I visited a very interesting nativity show in Montesilvano, Abruzzo.