2023 marks the 800th anniversary of the crèche (derived from crib in Old French), a tradition that has, for centuries, symbolized the true essence of Christmas. Even the most elaborate crèche scenes of today trace back to the genius of the 13th century Christian impresario St. Francis of Assisi, who sought to recapture the humble nativity story told in the Gospel of Luke.
Troubled by the greed and materialism of his era, Francis borrowed some straw, an ox and a donkey from a friend, and convened a midnight mass on Christmas Eve 1223 in a tiny rock cave outside the Tuscan town of Greccio.
In his biography of Francis, Saint Bonaventure described what happened that night: “The brethren were summoned and the forest resounded with their voices … the night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and the sonorous psalms of praise … Francis stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy … then he preached to the people around the nativity of the baby Jesus, and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of his love, he called Him the Babe of Bethlehem.”
Francis believed his mission was to bring the message of Jesus closer to the people and to enliven the Holy Scripture. These impulses led him to create the marvel of holiday stagecraft we now take for granted: the nativity display which has evolved into a worldwide tradition practiced continuously by Christians for the last 800 years transcending cultural and geographical boundaries. Whether displayed in a cathedral in Europe or a home in Africa, its essence remains unchanged. It is a call back to simplicity, love and hope.
Featured in this special 800th Anniversary slide show are some of my favorite paintings of the Nativity by Italian Renaissance and Baroque masters interspersed with Angels, who are featured prominently in the Gospels in important roles as messengers announcing the arrival of the baby Jesus.