Every year on September 13, Lucca repeates a ritual that dates back to the 8th century. The holy candle-lit procession known as the Luminara (taking the name from the many candles and lights rowing during the procession) flows through Lucca’s narrow streets, from the squares of San Frediano to San Martino, with an involvement of citizens and visitors filling the whole historic center of Lucca. The Procession is headed by the Archbishop and the holy image of Christ, the Volto Santo. According to legend, the Statue was made by Jesus’ follower Nicodemus after the Crucifixion, and is therefore considered a direct representation of Christ. The legend tells that Niccodemus, overcome by the arduous task of reproducing Christ’s face, fell asleep and when he woke up he found the statue amazingly completed by angels.
The Volto Santo was left hidden for centuries after Nicodemus’ death, until an Italian bishop, Gualfredo, found the sculpture on a visit to the Holy Land, after that the location appeared him in a dream. The bishop laid it in a boat, which headed miraculously to Luni, a Roman colony and early commercial rival of Lucca, near the modern town of La Spezia. The boat didn’t make landfall until Lucca’s bishop, inspired by a dream, could reach Luni and attracted it to the shore. After offering Luni’s bishop a reliquary of Christ’s blood (found inside the carving, at the back of Christ’s head), he loaded the wooden carving onto an ox-cart. The untamed steers went to San Frediano Church in Lucca. According to some versions of the legend, during the night the Volto Santo transported itself from San Frediano to the Duomo. Here the pilgrims and visitors can still find (on the pillar to the right of the entrance) a labyrinth recalling the legend of Theseus and the Minotaur.
The night of the famous Luminara is followed each year by beautiful fireworks visible from most points of the town.
This is also the time of “Settembre Lucchese” lasting the whole month, when a special market fills the space next to San Michele in Foro and Piazza Grande, the ancient Roman forum. You can buy specialty foods, clothing, and festival sweets in the market.
A perfect time to decide for a holiday in Lucca and visit this lovely town. If you rent a Tuscan villa just outside the town walls you will have a peaceful home where to come back after the festival; if you decide to stay in an apartment in the historic center you may be lucky enough to enjoy the famous “luminara” from your window!