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Assisi is illuminated with Giotto’s frescoes this Christmas season

December 17, 2021 Catholic News Agency 1
Giotto’s Nativity fresco projected on the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. / Shutterstock/CNA

Assisi, Italy, Dec 17, 2021 / 15:17 pm (CNA).

Saint Francis’ hometown of Assisi has once again been illuminated with Giotto’s frescoes this Christmas season.

The frescoes from the interior of the Basilica of St. Francis are being projected each night onto the town’s churches from Dec. 8 to Jan. 10.

Giotto (1267-1337) is the medieval artist credited with painting frescoes of the life of St. Francis as well as biblical scenes in the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi.

Painted on the walls and ceilings, these images inside the basilica can be difficult to see. The light display allows passersby and virtual viewers to see Giotto’s work in greater detail.

Giotto's frescoes adorn the interior of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Shutterstock
Giotto’s frescoes adorn the interior of the Basilica of Saint Francis in Assisi. Shutterstock

Giotto’s Nativity is projected on the facade of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, while the Annunciation is illuminated on the Cathedral of San Rufino. Both scenes also have life-size figurines displayed in front of the churches.

An adaptation of Giotto’s Visitation has been projected on the facade of the Basilica of Saint Clare and Assisi’s Abbey of Saint Peter features an illumination of the “Adoration of the Magi.”

The Abbey of Saint Peter in Assisi features an illumination of Giotto's “Adoration of the Magi.”. Shutterstock
The Abbey of Saint Peter in Assisi features an illumination of Giotto’s “Adoration of the Magi.”. Shutterstock

Assisi first debuted its Giotto Christmas light display in December 2020, but Italy’s coronavirus restrictions last year prevented people from outside the region of Umbria from visiting Assisi during the Christmas season.

The Franciscan friars of Assisi have created a website that allows people unable to see the lights in person to view the Christmas display virtually with videos and spiritual reflections.

A light projection of the Annuciation by Giotto on the Cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi. Screenshot from the website
A light projection of the Annuciation by Giotto on the Cathedral of San Rufino in Assisi. Screenshot from the website

Assisi has a special connection with the tradition of nativity scenes. St. Francis of Assisi created the first nativity scene in 1223 in the nearby town of Greccio.

Pope Francis traveled to Assisi in 2019 to sign an apostolic letter, “Admirabile signum,” calling for nativity scenes to be more widely displayed in family homes and public places throughout the world.

The letter also details the story behind St. Francis’ first nativity scene, or crèche. The saint asked a friend 15 days before Christmas to help him prepare “to bring to life” the memory of Christ’s birth in Bethlehem.

Pope Francis visits the place of the first nativity scene in Greccio, Italy on Jan. 4, 2015. .  L'Osservatore Romano.
Pope Francis visits the place of the first nativity scene in Greccio, Italy on Jan. 4, 2015. . L’Osservatore Romano.

“When St. Francis arrived, he found a manger full of hay, an ox and a donkey. All those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene. The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist. At Greccio there were no statues; the nativity scene was enacted and experienced by all who were present,” the letter explains.

Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of St. Francis, wrote that someone present at the Mass had a vision of the baby Jesus himself lying in the manger.

“In a particular way, from the time of its Franciscan origins, the nativity scene has invited us to ‘feel’ and ‘touch’ the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself in the Incarnation. Implicitly, it summons us to follow him along the path of humility, poverty and self-denial that leads from the manger of Bethlehem to the cross,” Pope Francis wrote.

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10 things that Pope Francis wants us to learn from the nativity scene

December 17, 2021 Catholic News Agency 1
Pope Francis celebrates Christmas Mass in St. Peter’s Basilica Dec. 24, 2020. / Vatican Media.

Greccio, Italy, Dec 17, 2021 / 04:00 am (CNA).

In 2019, Pope Francis issued an apostolic letter on the meaning and importance of the Christmas nativity scene. He signed the document, Admirabile signum (“Enchanting image”), on Dec. 1 that year, at the Shrine of the Nativity in Greccio, a hilltown in the Italian region of Lazio.

The choice of Greccio was significant, because it was there in 1223 that St. Francis of Assisi created history’s first nativity scene.

In the apostolic letter, widely regarded as one of the most moving documents of Francis’ pontificate, the pope sets out “to encourage the beautiful family tradition of preparing the nativity scene in the days before Christmas.”

Here are 10 things that Pope Francis wants us to learn from the nativity scene, drawn from Admirabile signum.

1. The nativity scene is like a living Gospel. The depiction of Jesus’ birth is “a simple and joyful proclamation of the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God,” the pope writes. The nativity scene invites everyone who contemplates it “on a spiritual journey, drawn by the humility of the God who became man in order to encounter every man and woman.”

The Vatican Nativity scene. Agencia Andina
The Vatican Nativity scene. Agencia Andina

2. The custom is rooted in the Bible. The pope underlines that the nativity scene rises from “the pages of sacred Scripture.” St. Luke’s Gospel says that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (2:7). The manger is the focus of nativity scenes. Indeed, the Italian word for nativity scene is “presepe,” from the Latin word “praesepium,” meaning “manger.”

Pope Francis visits the site of the first nativity scene in Greccio, Italy, on Jan. 4, 2015. Vatican Media.
Pope Francis visits the site of the first nativity scene in Greccio, Italy, on Jan. 4, 2015. Vatican Media.

3. The tradition was born in an unassuming Italian town. St. Francis of Assisi stopped in Greccio in November 1223, probably on his way back from Rome after receiving papal approval for the Rule of his religious order. Fifteen days before Christmas, he asked a local man named John to help him “bring to life the memory of that babe born in Bethlehem, to see as much as possible with my own bodily eyes the discomfort of his infant needs, how he lay in a manger, and how, with an ox and an ass standing by, he was laid upon a bed of hay.” On Christmas Day, St. Francis was joined by his friars and people from the surrounding area before a manger full of hay, watched over an ox and a donkey.

Pope Francis blesses nativity scenes near the Vatican Dec. 9, 2019. .
Pope Francis blesses nativity scenes near the Vatican Dec. 9, 2019. .

4. The first nativity scene was connected to the Eucharist. Describing the scene in Greccio that day, Pope Francis writes: “All those present experienced a new and indescribable joy in the presence of the Christmas scene. The priest then solemnly celebrated the Eucharist over the manger, showing the bond between the Incarnation of the Son of God and the Eucharist.” Unlike in nativity scenes today, the pope says, there were no statues. Instead, “the nativity scene was enacted and experienced by all who were present.”

Nativity scene. .  Ben White Photography via Unsplash.com.
Nativity scene. . Ben White Photography via Unsplash.com.

5. The original nativity scene inspired a vision. The pope recalls that one of the witnesses to the first nativity scene saw “a marvelous vision.” Thomas of Celano, the first biographer of St. Francis, wrote that “one of those present saw the Baby Jesus himself lying in the manger.”

.  fotorutkowscy / Shutterstock.
. fotorutkowscy / Shutterstock.

6. The nativity scene is a means of evangelization. The pope says that by creating the nativity scene, St. Francis “carried out a great work of evangelization” that continues to touch hearts to this day. The saint had discovered “a simple yet authentic means of portraying the beauty of our faith” that was accessible to all.

Pope Francis incenses the nativity scene in St. Peter's Basilica Dec. 24, 2017. .  Vatican Media.
Pope Francis incenses the nativity scene in St. Peter’s Basilica Dec. 24, 2017. . Vatican Media.

7. The manger is a sign of God’s love. Pope Francis writes that nativity scenes resonate so deeply because they show God’s tender love. They proclaim that “the Creator of the universe lowered himself to take up our littleness.” They engage the senses and imagination, helping people “to ‘feel’ and ‘touch’ the poverty that God’s Son took upon himself in the Incarnation.”

A detail from the monumental Nativity scene of the Castelli. .  YouTube.
A detail from the monumental Nativity scene of the Castelli. . YouTube.

8. The nativity scene contains a call to service. The pope says that the Christmas crib contains an implicit message. “It summons us to follow him along the path of humility, poverty, and self-denial that leads from the manger of Bethlehem to the cross,” he writes. “It asks us to meet him and serve him by showing mercy to those of our brothers and sisters in greatest need.”

The Nativity, by Rogier van der Weyden, part of the Bladelin Altarpiece. Public Domain.
The Nativity, by Rogier van der Weyden, part of the Bladelin Altarpiece. Public Domain.

9. Even a nativity scene’s landscapes are meaningful. The pope notes that depictions of the Nativity often include “the ruins of ancient houses or buildings.” He writes: “More than anything, the ruins are the visible sign of fallen humanity, of everything that inevitably falls into ruin, decays, and disappoints. This scenic setting tells us that Jesus is newness in the midst of an aging world, that he has come to heal and rebuild, to restore the world and our lives to their original splendor.”

Courtney Mares.
Courtney Mares.

10. Nativity scenes nourish devotion to Mary and Joseph. The pope observes that the Virgin Mary is shown as “a mother who contemplates her child and shows him to every visitor.” In her, “we see the Mother of God who does not keep her Son only to herself, but invites everyone to obey his word and to put it into practice.” St. Joseph stands at Mary’s side, protecting her and the Christ Child. The nativity scene reminds us that Joseph “entrusted himself always to God’s will, and put it into practice,” encouraging us to do the same.

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Live nativity scene (camel included) gives Catholic University students a welcome study break

December 12, 2021 Catholic News Agency 1
Students at The Catholic University of America posing with Delilah the Camel at the school’s annual “Greccio” live nativity event on Dec. 12, 2021. / Patrick Ryan/The Catholic University of America

Washington D.C., Dec 12, 2021 / 22:29 pm (CNA).

You knew this wasn’t your average live nativity scene when you saw the camel.

Delilah, to be more precise. 

On Sunday night, Dec. 12, she was the B.M.O.C. (Biggest Mammal on Campus) at The Catholic University of America — and the scene-stealing star of this year’s “Greccio,” a popular Advent event that pays homage to St. Francis of Assisi’s first-ever re-enactment of Christ’s birth, in Greccio, Italy, in 1223.

“Big” does not adequately convey Delilah’s dimensions. She measures 7 feet tall, from her well-cushioned feet to her impressive-looking hump, and tips the scales at approximately 900 pounds (not counting the 12 pounds of dormant grass she munched off the quad during her breaks.)

Delilah brought more than sheer size to the role of 1st century dromedary, however. With extraordinary patience, she let people stroke her surprisingly soft coat to their hearts’ content, and she posed like a pro for hundreds of selfies, looking directly into the camera with what looked an awful lot like a smile.

“Steady … cheese!” her handler, Jennifer Caton of Bar C Ranch, prompted her. Delilah got an animal cracker each time she complied, which was almost always. (This wasn’t her first rodeo — er, nativity scene.)

Students at The Catholic University of America re-enact the nativity scene during the school's "Greccio" event on Dec. 12, 2021. Patrick Ryan/The Catholic University of America
Students at The Catholic University of America re-enact the nativity scene during the school’s “Greccio” event on Dec. 12, 2021. Patrick Ryan/The Catholic University of America

Catholics in St. Francis’ day had become consumed with worldly cares. Reenacting the nativity at a cave out in the countryside, he hoped, would re-focus their attention on God’s profound humility and love.

The Conventual Franciscan friars in charge of the university’s campus ministry had a similar goal in mind when they initiated the first Greccio event on campus seven years ago. Coming at the end of the semester, it serves to remind students that there is more to celebrate this time of year beside the end of finals.

Held outside the St. Vincent de Paul Chapel, Sunday’s observance featured carols and scripture readings; costumed shepherds, wise men, and the Holy Family; hot chocolate and humongous home-baked cookies … and one very cool camel, among assorted other animals.

There were lots of little kids in attendance — the free event is a huge hit with young families from the surrounding Brookland neighborhood — but nobody seemed more overjoyed to see Delilah than The Catholic University of America students, who welcomed the interruption from their exam week studies.

“I didn’t know there was going to be a camel here,” said Emily Thomas, 19, a freshman from Baltimore who was taking a break from writing a 10-page paper on the Beatitudes.

“She’s like the coolest animal I’ve ever seen,” said a smitten Ben Rees, 19, a sophomore from Smithfield, Rhode Island, who had already knocked out two papers on Sunday but still had one to go.

“I love this,” said Susan Gibbs, the university’s interim executive director of communications, as she watched the festive scene unfold.

This was her first Greccio, and she seemed as delighted to be there as the students. “I mean, how often do you get to meet a camel?” she said.

[…]