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  • Il Presepe
    Part 1 of 3 - History of the Crèche

    by Anthony Parente

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    One of the most incredible scenes in Italy during Christmas time is the beautiful nativity scenes erected throughout the country. We first read about the birth of Christ in the Gospels of St. Luke and St. Matthew. They tell us about the manger, the shepherds and the three Wise Men. They gave us an opportunity to envision what it was like the day that Christ was born. This scene has been recreated by many sculptors and painters, but no one is for certain who was the first to recreate this image.

    One thing we know for certain is that the popularity of the Nativity scene did not occur until after St. Francis reenacted what many believe was the first living Nativity. St. Francis asked for and got permission from Pope Honorius III to hold a special celebration during Christmas. With the help of Giovanni Velita they prepared for this special celebration which would take place on Christmas Eve in 1223 at the monastery at Greccio. On that faithful night a child was placed in a crib as an ox and donkey stood nearby. Those who came to watch got to witness for themselves the miracle that occurred 1,223 years ago in the small town of Bethlehem. Writings from St. Bonaventure and Thomas of Celano give us detailed accounts of the events that lead up to the first living Nativity and what transpired afterwards. This wasn't the only thing that St. Francis created. He started a phenomenon that continues to this day throughout Italy.

    Initially, churches were the only ones that had erected Nativity scenes during Christmas, but soon the rich and prominent citizens had their own created. Some went to extremes and commissioned well known sculptors to make them a Nativity set. Clothes were specially made for each figure and in some cases jewelry was included in the wardrobe. Figures started to appear in the Nativity that resembled the type of people found in the town in which they were erected. Even those who were not wealthy began to build their own Presepio. Soon you were able to see the beauty of this miraculous scene throughout Italy. If you are in Italy during this holiday season make sure to stop and visit the various towns on your journey so you can experience first hand the workmanship and beauty of each nativity.

    Next part: Neapolitan Crèche - Part: 1, 2, 3

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