For centuries, pilgrims from all over the world came to the Tuscan town of Lucca to pray before one of Christendom’s most treasured relics—an eight-foot-tall (247 centimeters) wooden crucifix known as the Volto Santo di Lucca. Like the Shroud of Turin, the Volto Santo is regarded as one of the true icons of Christ. By the late Middle Ages, it was well known throughout Europe. “By the face of Lucca” was an oath sworn by William II of England, and it is even mentioned in Dante’s Inferno.
According to legend, the Holy Face was sculpted by Nicodemus who, in the Bible, helped to prepare and place the body of Christ in the tomb. Nicodemus fell asleep before he had finished the face. When he awoke, he found that it had been completed by an angel. In the 8th century, an Italian bishop, guided by a dream, discovered it in a cave on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. The crucifix was put on a ship with no sails or crew and miraculously set sail for Italy. It first came to the port of Luni in eastern Liguria. The attempts of the inhabitants to take possession of the boat were useless. Following a visit by an angel in a dream, the bishop of Lucca went to the port, and the boat revealed to him its precious cargo. A dispute arose between Luni and Lucca over the right to receive such a gift. The bishop gave Luni an ampoule with the blood of Christ, and the Holy Face thus went to Lucca.
Over time, many art historians came to believe that the current crucifix in the San Martino cathedral in Lucca was a 12th century copy of the lost or destroyed 8th century original. As part of the commemoration of the 950th anniversary of its foundation, the cathedral recently authorized a scientific study of the crucifix to determine its age. The tests were carried out with the Carbon 14 method at the Florence headquarters of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics. This method is best known for dating material of organic origin, such as wood and fabrics. Samples were taken from the crucifix—withdrawals of a few milligrams of material in several places—from the wood and also from a stratum of canvas on the sculpture. Canvas gives a more accurate dating because wood could have ben cut years before it was carved.
The results indicate that the crucifix dates between 770 and 880 AD. Therefore, this remarkably preserved sculpture of Christ with downcast eyes and wearing a colobium, an ankle-length tunic, is now the oldest surviving wooden carving in Europe and the West. Wood is far more perishable than bronze or marble; wooden statues of around 1,000 years of age are very rare indeed.
In Lucca, celebrations will continue, including the annual candlelit procession, the Luminara, which is devoted to the Holy Face on September 13. The procession, which no longer includes the sculpture as in the past, proceeds to the cathedral from the Basilica of San Frediano, where a fresco cycle commemorates the legend of Nicodemus sculpting the image. The Holy Face is the symbol of the city of Lucca today and the pride of a city-state that remained an independent republic for seven centuries.