St. Francis and his Nativity Scene

St. Francis at Greccio by Giotto
12 September 2017 0 Comment

Francis my man; my Mickey Rourke of the Middle Ages who changed the world of European faith by believing in the simple teachings of a man we call Christ. A man who came from the richest family in Assisi and turned his back on that wealth and with remarkable courage went out into a world of pain, suffering, disease and brutal poverty to lend a simple hand. His story has been told many times over the centuries and when you next find yourself in Umbria, Tuscany or the lesser trod towns and villages of north eastern Lazio, you will be in Francis country. A country of magnificent beauty, surrounded by the gentle calm of nature, that in many places has not changed much compared to that same countryside that Francis walked through some eight hundred years ago!

The celebration of Christmas was very special to Francis. In his last year, suffering unbearable pain as his body began to fail him he retired to his favorite hermitage at Greecio, in the Rieti Valley. Here his closest companions were shown the wounds of the stigmata, whilst the people of the valley joined his order of penitents. As ill as he was Francis delighted in the company of the sheep, oxen, horse and mules grazing in the valley, whilst buzzards and choughs soared above. Sometimes Francs caught a glimpse of deer and fox and occasionally wild boar and even wolves, creeping out from the trees to take note of this little man, prostrate on the ground in quiet pain.

During this period of war and pestilence the sanctity and respect for animals was best expressed by Francis himself and the emperor Frederick II. Francis once said, “If I ever talk to the emperor I will implore him, for the love of God, to decree that no one should trap or in any way harm our sisters the larks. Likewise the lord of every town and village and every podesta’, should see that all people scatter the roads with grain for the birds on Christmas Day.”

It was in Greccio in 1223, with the permission of the Pope; Francis arranged an entirely original celebration of Christmas. The local people were persuaded to build and stock with animals a stable near the hermitage where Francis dwelt. When darkness fell, the friars gathered and joined the long procession of families that climbed up to it. “Candles and torches light up the night, whose shining star illumines every day and every year. The manger is prepared, the hay laid out, the ox and the ass are led in. Greccio is made the new Bethlehem.”

This Christmas at Greccio was Francis’s last memorable public appearance. He was already preparing himself for his own death and it came in 1226, just after sunset on 3rd October. Francis was forty four years of age. He had become the most prominent figure in the Italian imagination in the thirteenth century; not a pope or powerful nobleman or politician. It was Francis of Assisi who in a perfect valley in 1223, surrounded by animals just outside of Rieti, gave the world the first Nativity.

Today, you can Walk in the Shoes of Francis, through much of the countryside that he knew and loved and along the way eat some wonderful in a variety of small villages of north east Lazio that spills over and into Umbria. For those less adventurous, travelling by car might be just as enjoyable. Check out this wonderful website, Cammino di Francesco (The Fireplace of Francis) and begin to plan your next visit to this magical part of Italy.

Peter Kilby
About the Author

Peter Kilby is an artist, writer, story-teller, journalist and avid traveller who has lived and worked in Italy since 1987. He created Perfect Traveller to bring the world of art and history closer to you. Download the “free” Perfect Traveller app and enjoy the best audio tours available; about Italy today and yesterday. Sign Up to this website and submit your travel stories and become part of the Perfect Traveller community.

Leave a Reply

Join now to get started

Signup with twitter or Email Address