The legend of the Holy Face of Lucca

The legend of the Holy Face of Lucca

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The Holy Face of Lucca (Italian: Volto Santo di Lucca) is an ancient wooden carving (crucifix) 2.4 m high that represents Christ crucified.

It is currently inLucca, Italy, in an octagonal marble chapel built in 1484 by Matteo Civitali, in the left aisle of the Cathedral of San Martín, in Lucca (Italy).


If we follow some medieval legends, we find among many the famous legend of the Holy Face, which in some of its versions states that was sculpted by Nicodemus, who helped Saint Joseph of Arimathea to place Christ in his tomb after the crucifixion.

In these same legends we find his miraculous arrival in Lucca in 782 AD.

Radiocarbon dating of the wood places its manufacture between 770 and 880 AD, which corresponds to the “Legend of Leobino", Which says that the Holy Face came from Palestine to Lucca in 782, although another version of the legend dates it in the year 742).

Copies of the Holy Face Of a similar size and made in the 12th century, they are widely distributed throughout Europe, such as:

  • The Imervard Cross at Brunswick Cathedral in Braunschweig, Germany.
  • The Holy Face of Sansepolcro in Sansepolcro, Italy.
  • The Batlló Crucifix from Barcelona, ​​Spain (probably).

History of the Holy Face of Lucca

The history "official" brand the year 782 as the arrival of the Holy Face to the Basilica of San Frediano.

His transfer to the cathedral, justified by the translation of the miraculous legend of the Holy Face known as ‘Of invention, revelatione ac translatione Sanctissimi Vultus'Or, more commonly as "Legend of Leobino”, It is very likely related to the episcopate of Anselmo da Baggio (1060-1070), who presented it at the consecration of the new Romanesque cathedral on October 6, 1070.

The details that are marked from the legend itself that we will talk about below, also suggest that the image was previously in Luni (Liguria), the former seat of a bishopric and Lucca's main commercial rival.

Luni belonged to the Byzantine territory and it was sacked by the Saracens, disputed between Byzantines and Lombards, and finally reduced to a village in the 8th century.

Artistic style

But despite this information, the sculpture has no stylistic relationship with the Lombard sculpture of the 10th or 11th centuries.

For its part, the iconography of a crucified Christ with a ‘colobium’, a tunic that reaches the ankles, it is more frequent to find it in the areas further east, while being carved to life size is often against Byzantine norms.

This type of life-size crucified Christ was more frequent in Germany from the end of the 11th century, after the Gero Cross of the Cologne Cathedral was created in 970, which seems to have been the prototype on which the later ones were based. .

The long tunic itself may be a Byzantine influence, although there are also many western examples in Ottonian illuminated manuscripts among others.

Finally, the belt of the Holy Face it is unprecedented in a Crucifixion of the East or the West.

The ‘Luminara’, the procession of the Holy Face

In Lucca, every September 13 there is an annual candlelight procession called the 'Luminara’Dedicated to the Holy Face, this being the eve of the religious celebrations the following day.

The procession goes towards the Basilica of San Frediano, where a series of frescoes commemorate the legend of Nicodemus by sculpting the image with cedar wood from Lebanon.

The legend of the Holy Face

The Legend of its creation.

Nicodemus he had completed the entire crucifix, but not yet the face. Thus, he fell asleep and upon awakening he found the Holy Face completed by an Angel.

These icons of Christianity are known as'Vera icon'Or'acheiropoieta', Which means they are objects "not made by human hands".

The Holy Face and its arrival at Luni

Legend has it that the Holy Face It was discovered in a cave in the Holy Land by the «Bishop Gualfredo«, Who was guided to her by a revealing dream.

This legend adds that the Holy Face mysteriously appeared in 742 on an unmanned ship adrift in the Tyrrhenian Sea, and that it reached the port of Luni.

When the inhabitants of Luni tried to board the ship and take the relic, it miraculously slipped from their hands.

The Bishop of Lucca, John i, he was warned by a dream of the arrival of the boat to the port and together with his clergy and many inhabitants of Lucca and they headed towards Luni.

When he reached the city, he ordered the men to stop trying to retrieve the ship and they all observed how, miraculously, the boat would have a place among all to stop in front of Juan.

This was taken as a divine demonstration on the part of the inhabitants of the city, who gave up in their attempt to seize the relic accepting that it belonged to Lucca since then.

The legend continues with another miracle, saying that the image was taken to Lucca in a cart drawn by oxen without a driver, one more demonstration of the "rectitude" of its possession by the city of Lucca.

Once in town, she was transferred to the church of San Frediano but miraculously he moved on his own to the church of San Martino, interpreting it as the fundamental reason for it to be chosen as the city's cathedral.

This story can be found in ancient codices, and today a facsimile of the work can be obtained on the Medieval Codex page.

Popularity of the Holy Face

Its popularity was expressed in the form of legends and myths to satisfy the pilgrims who made the Lucca cathedral, the goal of his pilgrimages from all over Europe.

Like other famous relics or images such as the Belt of the Virgin of Prato, the Holy Face is only available to view on certain days of the year.

Anecdotes of the Holy Face

  • "By the face of Lucca" was the "usual oath" of William II of England.
  • The Holy Face appears on medieval coins from Lucca.
  • Dante mentions the Holy Face of Lucca in his Hell, in Canto XXI, where a demon cries:

Qui non ha luogo il Volto Santo!
qui si nuota altrimenti che nel Serchio.

The Holy Face in Catalonia

Another legend places the Holy Face in Catalonia, which would have arrived there with the Pisans when, in 1114, they arrived in Barcelona to help Ramon Berenguer III in his conquest of the Balearic Islands.

Thus, during the Romanesque period, the image was highly revered in the region.

Legend of the violinist

There is also a legend about a devout violinist of the Holy Face, who receives from it one of his shoes made of a precious metal (varies according to history), which is recorded for the first time in the 12th century.

In general legend, the sculpture allows the shoe to fall (or kick it) towards the violinist, even though, in some versions, it is pierced by a nail.

The violinist is either a poor pilgrim, or a great devotee who is rewarded for playing frequently in front of the image, or he is only able to play the violin once the Holy Face brings him good luck.

Thus, the violinist can beg and the shoe is filled with coins, which is when the artist returns the shoe. This is repeated each time the violinist appears in front of the image.

In one of the stories, the artist is tried for the theft of the shoe, but manages to escape conviction.

The legend also became part of the cult of Wilgefortis, the alter ego of the Holy Face.

Wilgefortis, the ‘alter ego’ of the Holy Face

At the end of the 14th century, the Holy Face inspired miracles and veneration in the Netherlands, Bavaria and Tyrol, by which time his connection to Lucca had faded into the background.

The long robe the statue wore suggested that the figure was of a woman. To explain the beard, a legend developed about a young noblewoman who miraculously grew a beard to maintain her virginity.

This legend tells that his father, who is said to be the king of Portugal, promised her marriage to another pagan king.

Wilgefortis, what had i done vow of perpetual virginity, she prayed that her future husband would disgust her. As a result, a long, flowing beard was grown. Enraged, her father had her crucified.

Wilgefortis became a popular figure in Catholicism, assuming multiple local names including Kummernis in Germany or Sainte Débarras in France and was duly registered in theMartyrologium Romanum in 1583, retaining devoted followers until the 19th century.

Facsimile of the Legend of the Holy Face

At present, on the Medieval Codices page you can buy a facsimile of the Legend of the Holy Face, with a leather cover and a series of replicas of truly beautiful images, being a real reproduction with a very high quality.

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