By the time Francis of Assisi came along there were many painting of the birth of Christ, but Francis is credited with the inovention of the first "nativity scene".
In 1220 after his return to Italy from a voyage to Egypt Francis introduced the three-dimensional nativity scene. Some accounts state he used statues or costumed people. Thomas of Celano one of his biographers, tells us however that he placed a straw-filled manger between an ox and donkey. According to Thomas, it was beautiful in its simplicity with the manger acting as the altar for the Christmas Mass.
Another biographer, Brother Tommaso da Celano, tells us that in 1223 three years before his death, that Francis was concerned there would not be enough room in the local monestary for Christmas mass. He approached his friend Giovanni Velita, a nobleman from the nearby town of Greccio, to construct a nativity scene. This nativity with a straw-filled manger, ox and donkey, was built in a grotto near the town of Greccio. Francis preached from the midst of the nativity.
Bonaventure in his Life of St. Francis of Assisi discribes this event.
"He prepared a manger, and brought hay, and an ox and an ass to the place appointed. The brethren were summoned, the people ran together, the forest resounded with their voices, and that venerable night was made glorious by many and brilliant lights and sonorous psalms of praise. The man of God [St. Francis] stood before the manger, full of devotion and piety, bathed in tears and radiant with joy; the Holy Gospel was chanted by Francis, the Levite of Christ. Then he preached to the people around the nativity of the poor King; and being unable to utter His name for the tenderness of His love, He called Him the Babe of Bethlehem."
In 1562 the Jesuits erected a crib in Prague which is considered the first crib of the modern kind.
image: Giotto di Bondone’s depiction of the Nativity in the Arena Chapel, Padua