Greccio, the Fascinating Site of the World's First Nativity Scene

Silvia Donati | Wed, 11/04/2020 - 00:00
Sanctuary of Greccio Italy

Known by worshipers around the world as the ‘Franciscan Bethlehem,’ the Sanctuary of Greccio is one of the four sanctuaries erected by St. Francis in the so-called Valle Santa (Sacred Valley), in the province of Rieti (Lazio region in central Italy).

The Sanctuary of Greccio is a formidable architectural complex that seems to rise from the bare rock. It is located about 15 km from Rieti, at 665 meters above sea level in the Sabine mountains, close to the ancient medieval village of Greccio, with a splendid view of the surrounding countryside.

The Sanctuary is located at the beginning of the path to the architectural complex. It has a Latin cross plan, windows in Gothic style, and a bell tower.

The heart of the Sanctuary is the Cappella del Presepio (the Nativity Scene Chapel), built in 1228, the year Francis of Assisi was canonized; it is located inside a small cave carved into the rock where, on Christmas Eve in1223, Francis represented the birth of Jesus for the first time in the history of Christianity, thus establishing the first Nativity Scene. 

According to legend, St. Francis chose this steep spot after he asked a child to throw an ember, which ended its trajectory on the rocky wall of a small mountain owned by a feudal lord of Greccio, Giovanni Velita. Velita himself urged Saint Francis to give life to a re-enactment, with living characters, of the birth of Christ on Christmas Eve.

The Church of San Francesco is located further on after crossing the square, annexed to the monks' refectory.

Pope Francis visited the Sanctuary of Greccio twice.

Location