The first live Nativity scene was re-enacted by St Francis of Assisi in 1223, in a cave near the Franciscan hermitage in Greccio, Rieti, in the region of Lazio. After his trip to the Holy Land in 1219-1220, Francis was inspired to ‘bring to life’ the story of the Nativity in Bethlehem in his homeland, and from that Christmas in Greccio, the tradition of the live Nativity scene was to be spread through the world by the Franciscan Order.
In this drawing, the trip begins in the top left with Bethlehem,  the place of the original Nativity. Joseph and Mary make their way towards Bethlehem to find a place where the heavily pregnant Mary can give birth to baby Jesus. The birthplace of Jesus was simple stable inside a cave now preserved under the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, part of which has been in the custody of the Franciscan Order from the 1300s.
Turning to the top right of the drawing we can see the hermitage of Greccio, already familiar to Francis and chosen by him to re-create the birthplace of Jesus in a makeshift stable inside a cave close by. Illuminated by a star, the Nativity scene is depicted in the moment when the image of Baby Jesus appearing in the manger, is taken up by Francis and cradled in his arms. Sharing the joyous scene beside him are Mary and Jesus and friar Elia, an ox, a mule and other animals so loved by Francis.
From this place the Nativity scene travels to Assisi and the Basilica of St Francis, where it was painted by Giotto in one of the frescoes adorning the Upper Basilica. A majestic tree grows up from the cave below and rises through the Basilica towards Heaven. Between the branches of the tree, the hermitage of Le Carceri can be seen on the slopes of Mount Subasio, and to the left the branches reach out to the city of Assisi and the places associated with the life of St Francis and his Order, such as the Cathedral of St Ruffino, the Basilica of St Clare, San Damiano and Santa Maria degli Angeli housing the sacred Chapel of the Porziuncola.
Below Greccio is Cortona and the Convent of St Francis, built, like the Basilica of St Francis in Assisi, by brother Elia, who is standing in front of the church with Francis. In the square near the town hall, the three ‘Wise Men’ from the East, bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh,  look towards the star guiding them towards the birthplace. In the bottom right corner below Cortona sits a shepherd, who here represents Pope Francis, intent on saving his lost sheep (next to him is his coat of arms).
Another important place in the life of St Francis depicted here between Bethlehem and Assisi is the Sanctuary of La Verna on Monte Penna, (province of Arezzo), where Francis received the stigmata in 1224. Following the river below, we arrive, passing under the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, at the hermitage of ‘Le Celle’ in Cortona, a once isolated place where Francis retreated to pray. The highest of the three bridges at Le Celle leads us to the Basilica of Santa Croce in Florence, where a chapel was donated to Francis in 1211. Supporting this important cultural centre and seat of the Franciscan Order is a mighty tree, which grows from the body of St Francis and whose branches bear the martyrs and saints of the Order. A wonderful representation of the Franciscan family tree can be seen painted on the wall inside the ex-refectory of Santa Croce, represented here to the right of the church.
In fact, the tree plays a central role in this drawing as a sacred image and object of veneration rich in symbolism, not only of Christmas and the Nativity, but as the metaphor of the brotherhood that unites all Franciscans. In the bottom corner, a tree of the Franciscan Order (inspired by a fresco in the Convent of the Immaculate Conception in Lauria, Basilicata), grows in a large vase which bears the symbol of the Order. Francis and Bernardino of Siena can be seen feeding and watering the tree, whose trunk entwines as it grows, symbolising the strong ties that bind the brotherhood. Above is the Basilica of St Francis in Siena, where the Franciscans arrived after the death of Francis in 1226. The building was finished in 1326 and on the pavement in front are the arms of  two of the seventeen ‘contrade’ (or districts) of Siena  (il Bruco and La Giraffa) whose confines meet at the church. Behind is the Piazza del Campo with the Palazzo Comunale and bell tower. The landscape of ‘le Crete Senesi’ forms the backdrop.
But this Nativity travels further north, to Bologna, represented here by the famous ‘Torre degli Asinelli’ and ‘Garisenda’ and her gracious porticoes. The Franciscans arrived here with Bernardo di Quintavalle in 1213, to be followed a few years later by Francis himself, whose visit was a great success. The impressive Basilica of St Francis in Bologna was begun in 1236 and is testimony to growing importance of  the Franciscan Order in the years after the death of its founding Father.
But this is just the beginning of the story, as the Franciscan Order gradually spread through Italy, Europe and beyond, carrying with it the tradition of the live Nativity scene, which, thanks to St Francis and his trip to the Holy Land, can be seen and enjoyed today in many places at Christmas time.

Il primo presepe vivente fu realizzato da San Francesco in 1223, in una grotta vicino all’eremo francescano di Greccio, provincia di Rieti, nel Lazio. Dopo il suo viaggio in Terra Santa, Francesco voleva ‘portare’ Betlemme con la sua Natività a casa propria,  e dal tale Natale di Greccio, l’idea del presepe vivente pian piano fu portata dai francescani in tutto il mondo.
In questo disegno il viaggio del presepe inizia con il luogo della vera Natività a Betlemme, in alto a sinistra. Giuseppe e Maria stanno andando verso Betlemme a trovare un posto dove Maria possa partorire il bambino a cui viene dato il nome Gesù…una semplice stalla dentro ad una grotta, adesso preservata sotto la basilica della Natività a Betlemme, di cui  una parte è custodita dai padri francescani.
In alto a destra c’è Greccio col suo eremo già frequentato da San Francesco e scelto da lui stesso per realizzare il presepe in una semplice grotta come quella a Betlemme dove nacque  il Bambin Gesù. Qui, illuminato da una stella, il presepe è raffigurato in quel momento quando l’immagine del bambino sembra prendere vita tra le braccia di Francesco. Accanto, Maria, Giuseppe, un altro frate (forse Frate Elia), un asinello, un bue ed altri animali amati da Francesco, guardano con  gioia questo piccolo bambino…
Da questo posto il percorso del presepe  va su ad Assisi alla Basilica di San Francesco, in cui il presepe di Greccio fu dipinto da Giotto nella Basilica superiore. Il maestoso albero che cresce dalla grotta passa dentro la Basilica e si arrampica verso il regno del cielo. Fra i rami dell’albero si intravede l’eremo delle Carceri, sulle pendici del Monte Subasio, e poi a sinistra la città di Assisi ed i luoghi collegati alla vita di Francesco ed il suo ordine, come San Ruffino, Santa Chiara, San Damiano e  Santa Maria degli Angeli a proteggere la Porziuncola.
Sotto Greccio c’è Cortona ed il convento di San Francesco, costruito come la Basilica di Assisi da frate Elia, che si vede avanti alla chiesa con Francesco. Nella piazza di Cortona, vicino al Comune, i tre Re Magi dall’oriente guardano verso la stella, portando con loro oro, incenso e mirra. In basso, appoggiato su un albero, c’è un pastorello, che rappresenta Papa Francesco, intento a salvare le pecorelle smarrite (accanto a lui, il suo stemma).
Altri luoghi rappresentati in questo disegno sono ‘il Santuario della Verna’ sul Monte Penna (Provincia di Arezzo), ‘l’Eremo delle Celle’ (Cortona), Santa Croce (Firenze) e la Basilica di San Francesco a Siena ed a Bologna.
Da questi posti ed altri,  l’ordine francescano si diffuse nel resto d’Italia, Europa e oltre, e con sé fu diffusa la tradizione del presepe vivente che, grazie a San Francesco, si può vedere in tanti luoghi a Natale. Questo disegno rappresenta la nostra interpretazione di una parta della storia del presepe nei luoghi francescani e vi invitiamo a guardarlo da vicino e ad immergervi nei dettagli.