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The Holy Face of Lucca, historical analysis and recent studies

Recent scientific analysis conducted on the famous relic of the Holy Face of Lucca have shed new light on the history and importance of the wooden crucifix.

The Holy Face

The Holy Face  is a wooden crucifix,  venerated as one of the most important relics of the Christianity. It is kept inside the Lucca Cathedral, in a Reinassance temple.

Holy Face
The Lucca Cathedral

The importance of the relic is due to an extraordinary link between history and faith. From the Middle Age until now, the Holy Face has been visiting by pilgrims, along the most important route of the Via Francigena. The pilgrims travelling there to Jerusalem, believed that it was an acheropite image. Such is the tradition of those paintings or sculptures that are said not to be made by human hands, but directly by divine intervention. The Holy Face might be the true image of Christ on the cross.

Photo by Joanbanjo / CC BY-SA (
Holy Face
The Holy Face inside the Reinassance temple by Matteo Civitali, 1484, in the left nave of the Lucca Cathedral.

Historical notes and legend

The first historical sources about the Holy Face date back to the 12th century, when an important document called Relatio de revelatione sive inventione ac translatione sacratissimi vultus was written. It is the hagiographic tradition told by the deacon Leobin, so it is defined “Leobiniana”. The story tells the arrival of the Holy Face to Luni, and then to Lucca, about in 742 and attributes the work to Saint Nicodemo. Actually, the legend statues that after numerous attempts, Nicodemo was on the point of leaving, when he found that the crucifix was already miraculously sculpted.The relic was strongly disputed between the Luni and Lucca inhabitants, until an agreement was established. The city of Luni received an ampoule cointaining the blood of Christ, originally located inside the same wooden crucifix, instead the latter was given to Lucca.

Critical analysis

Concerning the critical analysis of the relic, there were two main hypotheses. The first one suggests that the supernatural nature of the crucifix relates to the exigence of avoid heresy and idolatry accusation, due to its great veneration. Moreover, the year during which the relic got to Italy, according to the legend, was characterized in Orient by a hard iconoclastic struggle. This context would justify the relic’s relocation from the Holy Land to the West. Indeed, under the reign of Carloman and Pepin the Brief there was a more tolerant religiosity towards sacred representations. The second hypothesis claims the relic today venerated in Lucca was only a 12th century’s copy of the original. However, this latter conjecture is heavily challenged by new scientific revelations.

Volto Santo
The interior of the Cathedral of San Martino, to note the small temple of the Holy Face along the left nave.

An extraordinary discovery

To celebrate the 950 years from the construction of the Lucca Cathedral, the Opera del Duomo promoted a carbon-14 dating investigation of the relic, in order to determine the dating for the first time. A diagnostic examination provided a surprising and extraordinary result. The Istituto Nucleare di Fisica Nucleare (Cnr) of the University of Florence, the 19th of June 2020, declared that the three wood fragments and the canvas portion analyzed refer to the 8th-9th century. The dating is coherent with what reported in the historical chronicles and the Leobiniana legend, suggesting that the Holy Face is the original sculpture and not a copy. It is the confirmation that one of the oldest and most important relics known today in the whole word is truly venerated in Lucca.

Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)

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