100 Cribs in the Vatican, 600 Cribs in North Clare

The sixth edition of the exhibition ‘100 Cribs in the Vatican’ is to take place this Advent, 800 years after the first Nativity scene was set up by St Francis of Assisi in Greccio, Italy.

It’s a long way from Clare to Rome, but a small village in Clare trumps that many times over. For several years now in Liscannor, the resident Pastor, Denis Crosby has a display of well over 600 cribs on display in the Church of St. Brigid, in the village.  A life-time labour of love, Fr. Denis has been gathering cribs from all over the world and the collection keeps on increasing year on year.  On the weekend of the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, December 17th they are generally on display for all in sundry to come and marvel at the variety and range of Christmas cribs from all over the ends of the earth.

The Nativity Crib – 800 years old

2023 is the year that marks the eighth centenary of that first representation of the Nativity scene which Saint Francis set up in Greccio, a little village close to the Italian city of Rieti. In 1223, November 29th on his way home from meeting the Pope, he had just heard the great news of the approval of the Franciscan Rule.  The future patron saint of Italy spent some time, en-route in the valley outside Rieti.

“I would like to represent the Baby born in Bethlehem, and somehow let people see him with their own eyes … how he was laid down in a feeding trough and how he lay there on the straw between the ox and the ass.”  This, in the words of the Franciscan annals, the Fonti Francescane.  It documents the desire that burned in the heart of St Francis in the weeks leading up to Christmas 1223.  His plan was to represent the Nativity in a way that everyone could experience and take in with a glance the concrete reality of God made human.

The grottos which occur naturally in the area around Greccio reminded him of those he had seen in the Holy Land and especially recalled the panorama of Bethlehem. Those weeks before Christmas, according to the Fonti, Francis enlisted the assistance of a man known only as John, and asked him to help him build his crib. On Christmas day that year, with many Friars who had made their way to Greccio, along with the local people St Francis unveiled the first Christmas Crib. When he saw the crib with the straw, the ox and the ass and was filled with joy.  “In that moving scene shines forth the simplicity of the Gospel: poverty is praised and humility presented to us in a positive way.  Greccio has become like a new Bethlehem,” in the words of Francis.

Now, 800 years on from that first Christmas crib scene in history being set up, the tradition is passed on in homes and communities, across the world, bringing with it a message of hope and peace which never fades away.

The 6th edition of the international exhibition ‘100 Cribs in the Vatican’ will this year also be an occasion to celebrate the historic anniversary of the first crib and along with that part of the preparations for the Jubilee Year of Hope, the Holy Year in 2025.

More than 300 works, coming from more than 17 different countries round the world have been entered. The deadline to nominate a nativity scene for the exhibition expired on Saturday 30 September. Since that the chosen artists who participated in the competition have been preparing diligently.

The 100 selected nativity scenes will be displayed under the left hand Colonnade of Bernini, in St. Peter’s Square, from 9 December 2023 to 7 January 2024. The inauguration will be held on Friday 8 December, at 4.00 pm. The last edition of the exhibition drew more than 200,000 visitors.

Materials used to make the cribs range from paper, fabric, cork and wood and a variety of other materials. Participants in years past included the chocolate company Il Cioccolato dei Trappisti (The Trappist Chocolate) who exhibited a nativity scene made of chocolate and weighing 100 kg.

100 Presepi  first began in Rome in 1976 and then took place in the city’s central Piazza del Popolo. In 2018, it moved to the Vatican and is now organized by the Vatican’s Pontifical Council for the Promotion of the New Evangelisation.

If you are too busy to make it to the Eternal City this Advent to see the 100 Cribs, then why not upgrade to Liscannor for the 600 exhibition. The Friary in Ennis, The Poor Clare Convent next door or your own local Church will also help to experience some of the joy of that first crib with the birth of our Saviour, Jesus Christ.  A blessed and happy Advent and Christmas season to you and yours.

✠ Fintan Monahan is bishop of Killaloe

Clare Champion Article 24th of November 2023