Nativity scenes are now a popular Christmas tradition although, the very first presepio (as they are known in Italy) was said to have been created at the behest of Saint Francis of Assisi in 1223. 

Following his visit to the Holy Land, Saint Francis was inspired to recreate the birth of Christ in woodland in Greccio, near to Assisi. Accordingly, Francis commissioned a man named Giovanni Velitta to construct a manger, fill it with hay and acquire an ox and an ass. On Christmas Eve, Saint Francis, Giovanni and the great and the good folk of the surrounding areas made their way to where the crib lay and a mass was held.  

Pope Francis, in 2019, said that this gathering (which did not include the sculpted likenesses of the Holy Family) was “a great work of evangelization.” Furthermore, he stated that even the most humble of modern nativity scenes was a reminder of “God’s tender love: the Creator of the universe lowered himself to take up our littleness.“


Giovanni Marigliano, Nativity Scene (Presepio), c. 1524, painted wood, Santa Maria del Parto a Mergellina, Naples. Web Gallery of Art.

Pietro Paolo Agabiti, Nativity, c. 1500, terracotta, Pinacoteca Civica, Palazzo Pianetti, Jesi. Web Gallery of Art.

Santi Buglioni, Nativity, 16th century, glazed and polychromed terracotta, diameter 68 cm, private collection. Web Gallery of Art.

Tommaso Orsolino, The Nativity, 1667, marble, Chiesa del Gesù, Genoa. Web Gallery of Art.

Giovanni Pisano, Nativity, 1302-10, marble, Cathedral, Pisa. Web Gallery of Art,

Luca di Andrea della Robbia, Nativity, 1515, glazed terracotta, Santa Maria Maddalena, Pian di Mugnone. Web Gallery of Art.

Giuseppe Sammartino, Nativity, 1780s, coloured terracotta, height 29 cm, private collection. Web Gallery of Art.

References: Saint Bonaventure, The Life of Saint Francis of Assisi, trans. E. Gurney Salter, New York: E. P. Dutton, 1904. 

“St Francis of Assisi and the Crib.” In Cosolata, 28 December, 2011. 

Cindy Wooden, “Pope Francis Encourages Faithful to Set Up Nativity Scenes.” In the Catholic Register, 2 December, 2019. 

Posted by Samantha Hughes-Johnson.

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3 thoughts on “The First Nativity of Saint Francis of Assisi

  1. Hi, please excuse if I am wrong but I believe that is Nicola Pisano, not his son Giovanni.

  2. Now that I look again, it does look more like Giovanni with the crowding and the dynamic action at the top.

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