In 743 AD a strange apparition appeared off the shores of Luni, an ancient Roman port which has given its name to Lunigiana, the region to the north of our Garfagnana. A boat was sighted coming to shore with upon it a sculpture of Jesus Christ on a cross . The image had been sculpted by Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea who had both placed the dead Christ taken from the cross into the tomb from whence he would obtain his resurrection. Nicodemus and Joseph were not too happy with their attempts at producing a likeness of the Christ but suddenly, when they returned to their work they found the wood had been miraculously transformed into a true likeness of the saviour.
(The Volto Santo as we saw it on the 13th of this month dressed up in all his finery for the occasion).
Regrettably, the land which received this image was torn apart by civil war and the sculpture had to find a safe haven. What was the name of the land torn apart by strife? Syria. Plus ca change… Nicodemus and Joseph of Arimathea, therefore, placed the statue on a boat without a pilot and let it free to navigate where it wished to find a save haven by the Mediterranean. At last the vessel reached the shores of Luni. Both the Lucchesi and the Lunensi realised the important of this beautiful image and wished to bring it to their home cities. Disputes arose which were only settled by placing the ‘Volto Santo’ (the Holy Face) on a wagon pulled by a pair of white oxen. It was decided to leave the animals, inspired by the Holy Spirit, to decide where to take the image.
(The oxen using their built-in GPS to guide them to Lucca)
The inspired animals headed south to Lucca but blood began to flow from one of the feet of the Christ. It was collected in a chalice and placed in an ampoule which was offered to the Lunigiani as compensation and which is, to this day, revered by the inhabitants of Luni in their church at Sarzana.
(The Sacred blood of Gesus in Sarzana Cathedral)
The Luccans, pleased with their new possession, decided to place the Volto Santo in the basilica of san Frediano, their first bishop (he came from Ireland). Next day, to their astonishment, they found the statue had disappeared, only to be found in a garden next to the cathedral of Saint Martin.
It was then decided that the statue should stay there and the great Luccan sculptor Andrea Civitali later built the magnificent tabernacle which can be seen to this day.
The ‘Holy Face’ became the centre of pilgrimages throughout Europe and has been mentioned in many famous works including Dante’s Divine Comedy, In essence the Volto Santo IS Lucca. It is the symbol of the town and its most precious treasure. Things may come and go but the Volto Santo is the heart of the city and within the heart of its most devoted inhabitants.
Every year on the 13th of September, the anniversary of the Volto’s translation to the cathedral church of San Martin, there is a huge procession which starts from San Frediano and finishes at the Cathedral. Like the Athenian panathenaic procession celebrating the goddess Athena on the Parthenon and so celestially sculpted in the Elgin marbles, the procession does not actually carry the the main statue, the Volto Santo, as is usual in other religious processions in Italy. What the procession does is to pay homage to the Volto Santo by representing every aspect of the city – again as in the processions of classical Greece.
For the wonderful evening the city is lit up not by electric lights but by myriads of candles lining doorways, windows, arches, porticoes arcades so that the whole city is changed into a fairyland. Remember too that once, before the advent of electric lights, this would have been the brightest night for Lucca so that its inhabitants would have been inspired by the light shining through the oncoming autumnal gloom.
The full moon rising to the right of the cathedral’s campanile did help, however, the night we were there!
The procession is divided into three sections and by the time the first part reaches the cathedral square the last part has barely left San Frediano basilica. The order of the sections is as follows: the religious section in which every single parish in the province of Lucca is represented and not just Roman Catholic ones: the Eastern Orthodox section carrying its sacred icons was particularly poignant
and there was a flamboyantly dressed Sri Lankan contingent representing that Luccan minority too.
At the end of the religious procession came Lucca’s popular archbishop Castellani distributing his blessings to the populace:
Of course, the whole Luminara is something to be seen – photographs just give a dim idea of how splendid and unique this climactic Lucca event is and how much it is felt in the heart of all true Lucchesi, several of which return from the world’s four corners to join in carrying their own banners from e.g. San Francisco, Montevideo, Melbourne, Glasgow… the Luccan diaspora is, indeed, far flung.
Second, the civil and institutional section where public services, mayors, colleges, and benevolent associations are represented and, finally, the historical enactment section where companies of crossbow fighters and flag-twirlers from all around the province together with lords and ladies form the various castles of Montecarlo, Nozzano, Ghivizzano, and Verrucole display themselves with drums trumpets and colourful costume.
Within Saint Martin’s cathedral the atmosphere is lively, ‘rather like a railway terminus at rush hour’, one of my guests aptly remarked. The overwhelming feeling is that of community and togetherness: people chat loudly to each other, the inevitable cell phones ring, pets enter into the church, children play hide and seek behind the vast cathedral’s columns. It’s truly ‘vox populi, vox dei’ and emphasises the fact that the church returns to its former origin as a basilica in the roman definition of the term – a vast meeting hall where conviviality mixes with religious awesomeness. There’s no pious mumbling of prayers or humbled singing of hymns and one wonders when the sacred enters in.
The sacred certainly makes its entrance with Lucca’s archbishop Mnsr. Castellani who leads a prayer which then opens out onto the most spectacular musical event of the evening: the performance of the mottettone or ‘big motet’ – a vast polyphonic structure composed by a Luccan composer specially for the occasion and which in the past included such illustrious names as Giacomo Puccini himself. This year the mottettone was the familiar one by Maggini and sung by the cathedral’s Saint Cecilia choir conducted by maestro Bacci.
We could have stayed on until the fireworks. I’d seen them before and they are truly spectacular. But one can have too much of a good thing and so we wended home to our hillier regions north of Lucca leaving a city strangely impregnated with sociability, religiosity and, above all, pride at being part of the Luccan community.
PS You can read more about previous occasions where I’ve attended this supreme Luccan tradition and see some pictures of the fireworks in my posts at: