Set within the rock like an eagle’s nest, the Greccio hermitage is an extraordinary fusion of architecture and nature. The edges of the building blend into the lush Holm oak woods that greeted Saint Francis on his solitary retreats.
The Sanctuary is famous because Saint Francis of Assisi chose it as the backdrop to one of the highest and most lyrical moments in his life: the first recreation of the Bethlehem Nativity in Christianity on Christmas Eve, 1223.
Saint Francis was very fond of the inhabitants of Greccio and he was close friends with Giovanni Velina who may have been the landowner and who supported the Saint in his project to represent the birth of Christ.
The founding of the hermitage is steeped in legend. According to local myth, Francis asked a young boy from the village to throw a chunk of coal in order to establish where the convent was to rise. From the doors of the city, the coal landed on the spur of rock where the Sanctuary stands today.
Legend also narrates that in 1209, further up the mountain in the woods that grow at over 1000 metres, Saint Francis himself erected a hut for his meditation.
This place is called Mount Saint Francis and a chapel dedicated to the saint was built there in 1712.
The convent opens onto a large clearing and visitors are offered a panorama of rare beauty overlooking the Sacred Valley.
The heart of the Sanctuary is the small Chapel of the Nativity built in the grotto that according to local tradition is where Francis arranged the Nativity of Christ. A rock under the altar indicates the place where Christ’s image was placed in the manger.
Above the altar a 15th century fresco depicts the Nativity. The Virgin Mary is caught in the intimate gesture of breastfeeding the Child in the presence of Saint Joseph. On the left there is a scene representing Francis’ gift of the Nativity to Greccio. It shows Francis wearing the dalmatic of a deacon kneeling in front of the infant Jesus. Behind him the people of Greccio witness the miracle. The
fresco is attributed to the anonymous Maestro di Narni and dated 1409.
Outside the chapel there are two frescoes: a Nativity from the umbro-marchigian school and a representation of Saint John the Baptist.
The Chapel of the Nativity leads down to the most ancient nucleus of the convent: the Franciscan friary with the refectory, the dormitory, Saint Francis’s cell and St. Berdardine’s pulpit.
The refectory houses the humble remains of the sink and the drain the friars used to wash dishes. The fireplace was built in the 20th century.
The dormitory is made up of a room that is seven metres long and about two metres wide. The first friars of the convent lived here. The dormitory terminates with the small cell dug out of the rock where Saint Francis slept.
The visit continues on to the Church of Saint Francis built in the early 13th century. The church is covered by a barrel vault ceiling decorated with a starspeckled sky and the image of Saint John of Parma. The furnishings are quite interesting: the stalls in the choir, the lectern, and the rotating wooden support of the lantern that illuminates the pages of the choir book.
Above the altar we find a 16th century painting from the Umbrian school depicting the Deposition between Saints. On the left wall there is a 14th century fresco with Saint Francis and an angel announcing the remission of past sins. Above the fresco there is a precious 15th century tondo depicting the Madonna with Child attributed to Biagio d’Antonio.
A 14th century copy of the portrait of Saint Francis is preserved on an austere table above the altar in the adjacent oratory. According to legend, it was painted in 1225, a year before the Saint’s death. Local tradition narrates that the portrait was commissioned by the noble Roman woman, Jacopa dei Sette Soli, a friend and protector of the Saint. Francis is portrayed suffering as he cleanses his eyes, tormented by a serious illness that afflicted him in his last years.
The Sanctuary also houses the Saint Bonaventure Dormitory. Legend dictates that it was erected during the period Bonaventure was Minister General of the Order (1260-1270). A narrow hallway in wood leads to fifteen small cells that are also in wood. The friars lived in these simple yet evocative spaces for centuries until 1915 when they moved into the upper floors of the building. According to legend, the first cell on the right sheltered two extraordinary friars: Saint Bonaventure, whom the structure was named after, and Saint Bernardine of Siena.
Leaving the convent proper and going into the woods we find the grotto where Saint Francis withdrew for spiritual retreats. It is a natural grotto that was fit with tables and rush matting to accommodate the Ragged Saint.
During the 14th century, a chapel decorated with a painting depicting the death of Saint Francis was erected. The chapel was restored following the 1948 earthquake.
Further on we find the grotto of Saint John of Parma who withdrew here for thirty-two years (1257-1289) in solitude and penitence after he was accused of adhering to the heretical theories of Gioacchino da
The path that leads to this grotto also leads to the so-called Roccia del Tizzo (The Rock of the Coal), the spot where the launched piece of coal landed and decided the site where the convent would be built. The same path also leads to a loggia that seems suspended in air and that offers an breathtaking view.
From the clearing, one continues on to the Church of the Virgin Mary built in 1959 according to a project designed by Carlo Alberto Carpiceci. The church houses two 20th century crèches, a tribute to the first representation of the Nativity by Saint Francis. The first is by the sculptor Lorenzo Ferri and is made of wood, while the second, in terracotta, is by Luigi Venturini.