Every year many tourists come to Lucca for the Luminara di Santa Croce but what is the legend of the “Volto Santo” and why it is celebrated by a candlelit procession on 13th September in the city of Lucca? The “Volto Santo “ is literally a wooden cross with the sculptured face of Christ but what makes it so special and revered by the citizens of Lucca?
The legend of this ancient wooden cross and its arrival in Lucca is told in frescoes in a side chapel of San Frediano. Nicodemus, who defended Jesus at his trial and anointed his body supposedly carved the cross and figure of Christ from cypress wood in the Holy Land. The sculpture was complete except for the face when overcome by tiredness Nicodemus fell asleep. When he awoke he found that the face had been executed by a divine hand. The crucifix was discovered by Bishop Gaulfredo, who in a vision was instructed to load the huge carving onto a drifting boat. The boat landed in the Tuscan port of Luni. The locals tried to pull the vessel ashore but the boat would always float away. The Bishop of Lucca at the time a certain Bishop Johannes, had a dream and went to Luni. The boat came to him and he was able to unload the Volto Santo and bring the heavy crucifix back to the city of Lucca on a cart drawn by oxen without a driver and place it in San Frediano.
However, Nicodemus's sculpture miraculously relocated itself to San Martino. The church was then declared the city’s cathedral.
The 13th September is the Procession for the people to revere this carving. In medieval times most citys celebrated their Saints with these candlelit processions but Lucca is one of the few cities that has continued this celebration for over a 1000 years. Why is the procession held in the evening and lit by candles? The answer is simple, wax was a valuable commodity. The route followed by the procession today is the taken by the “Volto Santo" on its miraculous journey, starting from
piazza San Frediano,
piazza San Michele
via Vittorio Veneto
piazza del Giglio
via del Duomo
piazza San Giovanni
piazza San Martino.
The flickering candles outlining the windows takes the city back to another Lucca. The Volto Santo is no longer removed from the cathedral and indeed the one on display in the beautiful shrine designed by the Renaissance Lucchese architect Civitali, is a 13th-century copy. The original supposedly destroyed by overzealous pilgrims. Today as for centuries the parishioners from the surrounding area plus the local dignitaries and clerics make up the procession. They are also joined by Lucchese citizens from around the world and locals in costumes. The joy of being part of this day is that it is a local festival for the locals and still acts as a meeting place for friends from far flung corners of the province. The historical markets held on 14th, 21st, and 29th September are also a meeting point and Luna park returns every year to amuse the populace. This old fashioned fun fair seems like a parallel world.
The procession starts at about 20.00 hours on 13th September every year and finishes with a mass in the Duomo of San Martino and the Mottettone polyphonic music. The festival is capped off by fireworks at about 23.00 hours, best seen from the walls above the church of San Frediano.