Faith through Art: Reflecting on Christmas with St. Francis of Assisi
By Norman Farmer
This month I am reflecting upon the fresco by Giotto di Bondone in the Upper Basilica of San Francesco at Assisi depicting St. Francis Institution of the Crib at Greccio on Christmas Eve in 1223. It is the earliest artwork to do so. What is more, the painting is grounded in the earliest narration of that event, “The First Life and Second Life of St. Francis” written by Brother Thomas of Celano, which is indispensable scrutinizing the details of the painting.
It was Francis’ intent, as St. Bonaventure wrote later, to “rouse the hearts of those who are weak in the faith,” a subject Francis evidently had discussed with “a certain man by the name of John, of good reputation and an even better life, whom Francis loved with a special love.” John is the key to the spiritual meaning of the crèche, for Francis then said, “If you [John] want us [we two] to celebrate the present feast, ... prepare what I tell you.” And so, the former knight humbly procured hay, an ox, and an ass, assembling them in “a secluded cell hewn from a projecting rock” in the woods beyond Greccio.
“As the day of joy drew near,” Celano writes, “the brothers were called ... while men and women of that neighborhood prepared candles and torches to light up that night that has lighted up all the days and years with its gleaming star. Thus was Greccio made ... a new Bethlehem ... The people came and were filled with new joy over the new mystery. The woods rang with the voices of the crowd and the rocks made answer to their jubilation. The brothers sang, paying their debt of praise to the Lord, and the whole night resounded with their rejoicing. The saint of God stood before the manger, uttering sighs, overcome with love, and filled with a wonderful happiness. The solemnites of the Mass were celebrated over the manger and the priest experienced a new consolation.
“The saint of God was clothed with the vestments of the deacon, for he was a deacon, and he sang the Holy Gospel in a sonorous voice ... Then he preached to the people standing about, and he spoke charming words concerning the nativity of the poor King, and the little town of Bethlehem ... When he wished to call Christ Jesus, he would call him simply the Child of Bethlehem, ... and speaking the word Bethlehem, his voice was more like the bleating of a sheep ... When he spoke the name Child of Bethlehem or Jesus, his tongue licked his lips, as it were, relishing and savoring with pleased palate the sweetness of the words ... [Ps 34:8]. [Here] a wonderful vision was seen by a certain virtuous man. For he saw a little child lying in the manger lifeless, and he saw the holy man of God go up to it a rouse the child as from a deep sleep. This vision was not unfitting, for the Child Jesus had been forgotten in the hearts of many; but, by the working of his grace, he was brought to life again through his servant St. Francis and stamped upon their fervent memory.”
“The hay ... [from] the manger was kept ... and ... it so happened that many animals throughout the surrounding region that had various illnesses were freed from their illnesses after eating of this hay ... Later, an altar was built in honor of the most blessed father Francis over the manger, and a church was built, so that where once the animals had eaten the hay, there in the future men would eat unto health of soul and body the flesh of the lamb without blemish and without spot [1Pt1:19], our Lord Jesus Christ [1Cor 1:10], who in highest and ineffable love gave himself to us ...”
Formidable artistic challenges faced the painter who would depict all these things and more: (1) the actual historical event, (2) the supernatural vision, and (3) the miracle that later proved the authenticity of that mystical vision. To accomplish this Giotto depended upon widespread familiarity with Brother Thomas’s story, but situated the event in the sanctuary of a church, an allusion to the one built to honor St. Francis. Then he filled the sacred space reserved for clergy and the Sacrifice of Mass with lay folk, witnesses as the brothers sang lauds and as Deacon Francis –– much as Simeon held the Child of Bethlehem (Lk 2: 29-32) –– mystically clasped the incarnate God in his own arms while “relishing and savoring with pleased palate” the sweetness of Jesus’s name (Ps 34:8).
John, who urged and helped Francis to enact the earliest Christmas mystery play, “sees” in his soul the eucharistic miracle that unfolded that night at Greccio. Yet, it is no mere whimsy that the lowly ass beside the crèche should look directly at the One destined to ride an ass into Jerusalem to sacrifice himself for us all – the event foreshadowed by the blank framework on the backside of the Rood. Could that be what the priests think as they gaze in awe and wonder from the Host upon the Tabernacle to “the lamb without blemish and without spot, our Lord Jesus Christ.” A “new consolation,” indeed!