Sanctuary of Greccio
A little more than a mile from the medieval hilltown of Greccio, overlooking Rieti’s Plain, is the Franciscan Sanctuary of the Manger Scene, one of the four sanctuaries adorning the Holy Valley and location of the first nativity scene in history. The atmosphere here is one of great calm and devotion, also due to the fact that Saint Francis and his story as a poverello friar who loved animals and the poor have always had the extraordinary ability to win over both Catholics and non-Catholics.
Saint Francis of Assisi arrived in Greccio for the first time around 1209, when it is said that he helped the local people keep some wolves away. He later came back several times, and in 1217 he built a shelter between two hornbeams on Mount Lacerone, just behind Greccio. In 1712 a small commemorative chapel was built on the site. The saint often used to come down to the village in order to preach Jesus’ teachings in front of people who were still uncouth and not particularly keen on abiding by Christian norms, and many started to follow him.
He soon became friends with Giovanni Velita, Greccio’s lord and castellan, who humbly asked him to choose an abode which would be easier for everyone to reach. Legend has it that St. Francis asked a four-year old child to throw a firebrand as far as he could, and that this miraculously ended its run over a mile away, setting fire to a forest on the mountainside. Francis settled there and in 1228, only two years after his death, the friars began to build the sanctuary as we see it today. With a sanctuary nestled in the rock at 665 metres above sea level, you can imagine that the view of the valley from the square in front of it really is breathtaking.
The core unit of the convent, which dates back to Francis’ time, is represented by the tiny church of St. Luke - with the small chapel, dug in the rock, where the first crib was set up 1223 - the friars’ refectory, the dormitory and the saint’s cell. Inside the chapel you can see a fresco from 1409 which portrays Bethlehem’s Nativity on the right and Greccio’s manger scene on the left. Walking along the corridor, you encounter the refectory and the tiny cells where the friars used to sleep, the last of which is Francis’. The latter was so used to sleep on the bare rock that one night, having tried a feather pillow at the invitation of Giovanni Velita, he could not fall asleep at all.
You can also take a look at Saint Bernardine of Siena’s pulpit: he used to live here, as wells as Saint Bonaventure. In a small church, one of the first consecrated to St. Francis, there is a 14th-century copy of a portrait of the saint: in the painting he is drying his eyes, due to a serious infection he had contracted in the East. Finally, outside the sanctuary are the solitary cell of Saint Francis and the ‘Roccia del Tizzo’ (Firebrand’s Stone), where the firebrand is said to have fallen. In the square you will also find the modern church, erected in 1959 and dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Inside there are two nativity scenes sculpted in the 20th century: one is made out of wood, the other out of terracotta.