La Festa della Santa Croce Posted by Serena on Sep 28, 2009 in Culture
By far the most important religious and social event that takes place in Lucca is La Festa della Esaltazione della Santa Croce (The Festival of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross) which happens each year on the 13th and 14th of September. This year, for the first time in ages we decided to go into Lucca on the evening of the 13th to witness the most spectacular part of the celebrations, la processione notturna a lume di candela (the nocturnal procession by candlelight) which is known as La Luminara. As with most things that we revisit after years of absence, the candlelit procession didn’t quite live up to my expectations. For example, I had remembered all the city lights turned off, and the streets illuminated only by candlelight and of course it wasn’t quite like that. For a start there were the television cameras to accommodate, with their dazzling spotlights in Piazza San Martino somewhat detracting from the beautiful facade of Il Duomo (The Cathedral) which was otherwise lit only by flaming torches. The spotlight were also ‘fortuitous’, I suppose, for all the participating local town mayors and politicians who would naturally want to be as visible as possible on the Lucca TV station, or am I just succumbing to Italian cinismo! Nevertheless, it is still a very pretty sight, with literally thousands of candles decorating the buildings located along the route taken by the lenghty procession.
The festival, which has taken place for many centuries, is based on the culto del Volto Santo di Lucca (cult of the Holy Effigy of Lucca), a cult once widespread throughout medieval Europe. The Volto Santo is in fact a famous crocifisso ligneo (wooden crucifix) which has a number of fascinating legends surrounding it. This famous depiction of Christ on the cross is believed to have been carved out of a Lebanese cedar tree by Nicodemus, whose hand, it is said, was guided by angels. During the time of the crusades and the persecution of the Christians, many such religious relics were hidden away to avoid their destruction. At some point, in order to ensure its safety, the Volto Santo was placed on a crewless boat and entrusted to the waves of the open Mediterranean sea. Having crossed the Mediterranean, and survived attacks by pirates, it was eventually washed up on the shore at Luni on the Tuscan coast. There then ensued many longwinded arguments between the Lunigiani and the Lucchesi over who should take possession of it, and where it should be placed (hmmm, nothing changes!), which were finally resolved by entrusting it once again to the laws of chance (as I said, nothing changes!). The Volto Santo was placed on a cart drawn by two wild oxen who of their own accord took the road to Lucca, and ecco fatto its fate was decided.
Initially, the Volto Santo was placed in the church of San Frediano, however the following day it disappeared, only to mysteriously turn up on the other side of town in a vegetable plot near the Duomo di San Martino. This was taken as an indication by the Volto Santo that it preferred S.Martino, and it still resides there to this day. Every year, the crucifix’s journey between S.Frediano and S.Martino is commemorated by the famous candlelit procession through the streets of Lucca. The procession is so long that by the time the head of the procession is entering S.Martino, its tail is still within S.Frediano.