Every year on the evening of the 13th September the streets of Lucca are adorned with thousands of candles on the occasion of the Luminara di Santa Croce, one of Italy’s most significant religious festivals. This historic procession celebrates the legendary Volto Santo crucifix, bringing a mystical atmosphere to the town.

lucca volto santo festival
Photo by MikilsOpera propria, CC BY-SA 3.0, Collegamento

Luminara di Santa Croce – Let there be light

It’s a captivating sight. All the electric lights are turned off, while thousands of flickering candles light the streets of Lucca. Windows, door frames, and the town’s ancient churches are all dressed up with tiny lights. We can easily imagine that the experience would not have been that different for a Medieval pilgrim.

At around 8pm, after receiving the blessing, the procession departs from the Church of San Frediano. At its head there’s a great banner portraying the Volto Santo crucifix. Hundreds of people join in, to accompany Lucca’s revered symbol to the Cathedral of San Martino.

Priests in their white robes hold religious banners and torches, the brass band brings the rhythm, while prayers are sung along the way. People in historic costumes put the finishing touches to this otherworldly scene.

Volto Santo Festival. The program

A market is set in Piazza San Michele from the morning. At 8pm the procession starts from San Frediano Church, ending up at the Cathedral of San Martino, where the original Volto Santo cross is kept. At 11.30pm a firework display rounds off the day.

If you decide to visit Lucca in September, you’ll find this is one of the liveliest times to be here. Markets of different kinds, selling everything from clothes to food and flowers, bring a bit of bustle to the town throughout September.

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What is the Volto Santo, or “Holy Face”? – Lucca’s legendary Cross

But why is this crucifix so important? Legend has it that Nicodemus, who helped to remove the body of Christ from the cross, carved a portrait of Jesus on the cross but didn’t complete the face, fearing he wouldn’t be able to depict the holy visage. The face appeared miraculously while he was asleep. He then hid the holy crucifix in a cave somewhere in Lebanon, where it remained for centuries.

The same miraculous force later brought the Cross from the Holy Land to the Tyrrhenian shores. After having a prophetic dream, the Bishop of Lucca finally brought the holy cross to the town.

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A bit of history

Reality and legend mix in the history of this artefact, which dates between the 11th and 13th century. One theory says that the cross we see today is a copy of an older one, that arguably arrived from the Middle East in the 8th century.

The dark colour of the wood is the result of centuries of candle smoke, and the big eyes signify the triumph over death and belief in the Resurrection. There are other large-scale crosses in the early medieval Western world, but this is quite unique as Christ appears wearing a tunic.

Throughout the Middle Ages various legends and stories about the Volto Santo proliferated in Europe, reaching England where King William II of England affirmed his oath in 1087 with the words: “per sanctum vultum de Lucca”. Dante Alighieri mentions it in the XXI canto of his “Inferno”.

Did you know?

The 14th September is an important date in the Catholic calendar. Catholic and Orthodox churches celebrate the “Exaltation of the Holy Cross” on this date, and there are festivals in various places in Italy, the most significant being in Lucca and Milan.

The Catholic News Agency explains it this way: “The feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross celebrates two historical events: the discovery of the True Cross by Saint Helena, the mother of the Emperor Constantine, in 320 under the temple of Venus in Jerusalem, and the dedication in 335 of the basilica and shrine built on Calvary by Constantine, which marks the site of the Crucifixion.The basilica, named the Martyrium, and the shrine, named the Calvarium, were destroyed by the Persians in 614. The Church of the Holy Sepulchre which now stands on the site was built by the crusaders in 1149.”

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