The Duomo di San Martino in Lucca is a beautiful marble cathedral with magnificent Romanesque sculptures on its facade and a much-revered crucifix (the Volto Santo) sheltered inside.
History of Lucca Cathedral (San Martino)
Lucca Cathedral was consecrated in 1070 by Pope Alexander II, formerly the Bishop of Lucca. The impetus for replacing the smaller Church of St. Martin with a grand cathedral is traditonally the arrival of the miraculous Volto Santo (Holy Face of Lucca). The west facade was decorated in 1204 and the portico in 1233, and the interior was rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries.
What to See at Lucca Cathedral (San Martino)
Tucked in next to the brick bishop's palace at the east end of the Piazza San Martino, Lucca Cathedral is a fine example of Pisan Romanesque art and architecture. The lower half of the facade is occupied by a deep portico, beautifully decorated with marble inside and out.
The right arch of the portico is smaller than the rest, to accommodate the existing brick campanile. The tower has five tiers, the top two of which retain their marble facing, with ascending numbers of windows and Ghibelline battlements around the top.
A fine view of the south transept and east end of the cathedral, which are attractive but comparatively plain, can be had from Lucca's famous city walls.
The beautiful west facade is faced with white marble blocks, with gentle stripes in light grey marble and a wealth of decorative details in dark green marble. Its decoration dates from 1204 and is signed by Guidetto da Como, who also worked in Pisa and Pistoia.
The lower section has several corbels supported by telemones, which once held free-standing sculptures. All of these are now missing except for the large statue of St. Martin on horseback, dividing his cloak with a beggar. This statue on the facade is a replica; the original can be seen inside the cathedral.
The upper level of the facade is ornately decorated with a rounded border of carved vines (some inhabited with figures), heads of animals and humans, blind arcades with carved columns, and intricate designs in white inlaid marble on a dark green background. There are two tiers of blind arcading on the main facade, topped with another tier of arches on a short and squat loggia.
The overall design is very similar to that of Lucca's San Michele in Foro, but here the loggia is shorter and the inlaid marble has a few less animals and a few more geometric designs. As at San Michele, even the little columns are fully decorated: some with inlaid green marble designs, some carved with geometric patterns, and some covered in figurative sculptures.
All this busy detail is a feast for the eyes (especially for those with binoculars or a zoom lens!) and contrasts beautifully with the plain marble facing of the lower facade and walls behind the upper arcades. The windows of the upper levels, visible through the arcading, have multiple striped archivolts that add even more depth.
The sculptural decoration inside the portico was begun in 1233 and uses pink, green and white marble to magnificent effect. Each of the three portals are topped with bas-reliefs on the architrave and in the tympanum. Over the central portal, the tympanum depicts the Ascension of Christ, with the Virgin and Apostles on the architrave below.
The left tympanum illustrates the Deposition from the Cross, while its architrave squeezes in the Annunciation, Nativity and Adoration of the Magi. These are thought to be early works of famed sculptor Nicola Pisano. The right portal's tympanum shows the Beheading of St. Regulus at the hands of the Goths. Below this in the architrave is the Meeting of St. Martin with the Arians.
The walls between the portals contain more bas-reliefs under small blind arcades, some badly weathered. These are the work of the facade's master sculptor, Guidetto da Como, in the early 13th century. The subjects depicted here are the Labors of the Months and the life of St. Martin.
A deeply-carved, symbolic stone labyrinth embedded in the right pier of the portico dates from the 12th century (Blue Guide, which features it on its cover) or 13th century (official guidebook). It is accompanied by a Latin inscription referring to ancient pagan mythology: "This is the labyrinth built by Dedalus of Crete; all who entered therein were lost, save Theseus, thanks to Ariadne's thread."
The interior of the Duomo is Late Gothic, rebuilt in the 14th and 15th centuries, and is home to many notable works of early Renaissance art.
The most represented artist in the cathedral is Matteo Civitali (late 15th century), whom Henry James called the "wisest, sanest, homeliest, kindest of quattro-cento sculptors." Civitali contributed the inlaid pavement, pulpit, two stoups, altar of St. Regulus, the tabernacle housing the Volto Santo, and the celebrated tombs of Pietro da Noceto and Domenico Bertini in the south transept.
The marble choir screen, now moved to side chapels, was created by artists from the school of Civitali. The bronze high altar is modern (1987), but supports a 14th-century Sienese triptych. The choir stalls and stained glass windows in the apse date from the late 15th century.
The north transept has an altar of 1579 with the Risen Christ and St. Peter and St. Paul by Giambologna and a Virgin and Child Enthroned with Saints (1509) by Fra' Bartolomeo in a side chapel.
A small fee grants admission to the sacristy, which contains the celebrated Tomb of Ilaria del Carretto (1406-13) by Jacopo della Quercia. Ilaria was the wife of Paolo Guinigi, ruler of Lucca, and she is beautifully depicted in effigy, accompanied by a little dog representing her faithfulness.
For pilgrims, the highlight of the cathedral is the Volto Santo ("Holy Face") of Lucca, a large wooden crucifix said to have been carved by Nicodemus, the biblical figure who helped Joseph of Arimathea remove Christ's body from the cross in John 19.
According to medieval legend, Nicodemus did all the carving work but the face, which he hesitated to complete for fear of not doing it justice. He fell asleep, and upon awaking found the face beautifully carved - the miraculous work of an angel. The Crucifix of the Holy Face was buried in a cave for safekeeping, where it remained for centuries.
It was rediscovered by Bishop Gualfredo, who was on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land when its location was revealed to him in a dream. To allow God to decide where the Crucifix should be kept, the bishop set it adrift on an unmanned boat in the Mediterranean Sea. The Volto Santo arrived on the shores of northern Italy, where the Bishop of Lucca, also prompted by a dream, put it into a wagon with no driver to determine its final location. The two oxen pulling the wagon stopped of their own accord at Lucca in 782.
The Volto Santo was placed in the Church of San Frediano, but the next morning, it was found to have been miraculously transferred to San Martino. For this reason, the legend explains, San Martino was designated the cathedral of Lucca (an honor previously held by Santi Giovanni e Reparata).
As usual, the real story is probably a little less exciting. There is no known mention of the Volto Santo before the 11th century, and for stylistic reasons it seems to be a 13th-century copy of a 11th-century original, perhaps necessitated by pilgrims chipping away at it. The original may have itself been based on an earlier model, perhaps a Syrian work of the 8th century.
The Volto Santo of Lucca was highly revered in the Middle Ages and attracted pilgrims from across Europe. Many copies were made and distributed, Lucca produced coins stamped with its image, the medieval French invented a St. Vaudeluc from a corruption of its Latin name (vultum de Lucca), and King William II of England (d.1100) was said to have sworn oaths per Vultum de Lucca ("by the Holy Face of Lucca").
Today the Volto Santo still occupies a place of honor in San Martino, near the front of the nave on the left side. It is housed inside a golden Renaissance tempietto (tabernacle) made by Matteo Civitale in the late 15th century, and can only be viewed through grilles in the front. Within the Tempietto, the Crucifix is set against a vibrant red background and flanked by a pair of flying bronze angels.
The Volto Santo is a beautiful work of devotional art. Carved from dark cedarwood, the body of Christ is larger than life and depicted in a full-length, long-sleeved tunic painted in black. The Holy Face is bearded and regal, and looks down from the cross with a solemn, resigned expression. The face has been left the deep brown color of the wood, with the beard, hair and eyes painted black.
Festivals and Events
Every September 13-14 and May 3, the Luccans celebrate the Volto Santo with a solemn procession from San Frediano to the Duomo. The statue is no longer carried through the streets on these occasions, but it is dressed in rich medieval vestments inside its shrine. These include a golden crown, a golden breastplate with a jeweled cross necklace, a golden belt with small sculptures in Gothic niches, a half-robe of black velvet embroidered in gold thread, and gold-embroidered scarves draped over the wrists.
Quick Facts on Lucca Cathedral (San Martino)
|Names:||Cattedrale di San Martino · Lucca Cathedral (San Martino)|
|Visitor and Contact Information|
|Coordinates:||43.840670° N, 10.506202° E|
|Address:||Piazza San Martino|
|Hours:||Daily 9:30am-5:45pm (to 6:45pm Sat)|
|Lodging:||View hotels near Lucca Cathedral (San Martino)|
- Personal visit (May 1 and May 4, 2008).
- Franco Bellato, trans. Maria Guintini, The Cathedral of San Martino in Lucca: Guide to the visit, 2nd ed. (Lucca: Edizioni Cattedrale di San Martino, 2006).
- Alta Macadam and Ellen Grady, Blue Guide Central Italy with Rome and Florence, 1st ed. (Somerset: Blue Guides Limited, 2008), 334-36.
- Kenneth John Conant, Carolingian and Romanesque Architecture 800-1200 (Pelican History of Art) (Yale University Press, 1993), 382.
- National Geographic Traveler Italy, 3rd ed. (2008), 261.
- Cattedrale di San Martino - Frommer's Florence, Tuscany and Umbria
- Holy Face of Lucca - Wikipedia
- The Volto Santo in Lucca - WayTuscany
- Christ on the Cross (c.1200) - Web Gallery of Art
- Photos of Lucca Cathedral (San Martino) - here on Sacred Destinations
Map of Lucca Cathedral (San Martino)
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