The Holy Face passed through Posara

volto santo statueWhen you come into Posara you’ll see a sign, white lettering on a brown background, saying Via di Volto Santo, the Way of the Holy Face, and our guests often ask us what it is all about.

Blog vlto santo Michelangelo_Pieta_FirenzeWell, it’s a fascinating story. The Holy Face is actually a life-size wooden statue of the crucified Christ (above), which is now displayed in the cathedral at Lucca. (You can see it if you choose to go to Lucca on the Wednesday excursion during our creative courses.) Medieval legends said that it was sculpted by Nicodemus, who helped Joseph of Arimathea take Jesus down from the cross and place the body in the tomb. (He can be seen in a famous Michelangelo pieta in Museo dell’ Opera del Duomo in Florence.)

Nicodemus, so the story goes, sculpted his statue from Cedar of Lebanon, but slept before completing the face. When he awoke the face had miraculously been completed by an angel.

But how did it get to Italy? Well, Medieval legend has it that a bishop in the Holy Land, guided by a dream, found it in a cave there and that somehow it was sent by boat, without sails or sailors, to the Tuscan port of Luni, from which our area Lunigiana takes its name. Its date of arrival is given as 742 AD.

When the men of Luni tried to secure the boat, however, it kept retreating from them in the sea. Meanwhile Johannes, the Bishop of Lucca, also had a revelatory dream about the arrival of the Volto Santo and set off for Luni with a mass of Lucchese. Arriving at Luni, Johannes called on God’s aid and the boat miraculously came to the shore (even dropping a handy gangplank) and the statue was revealed. Blog Volto santo FrescoeThe Lucchese still had to prove their right to house the Holy Face in their city, so it was placed in a cart pulled by oxen, but with no driver, who took the statue by a tortuous route through Lunigiana (including Posara) and neighbouring Garfagnana to Lucca, where it was deposited in the church of San Frediano. But even here was not to be its final resting place: it was miraculously ‘translated’ to the church of San Martino which, because of this, was chosen at the cathedral of Lucca. The Volto Santo di Lucca quickly became an object of pilgimage and many copies were also made for use in churches throuhout Europe, notably in Bury St Edmunds in England.

There is some doubt about the true age of the original sculpture, some suggesing that it only dates from the 11th Century. What is true is that the orginal was chipped away by relic-hunting pilgrims and what we see today is an early 13th Century copy. It now stands in the nave of the cathedral of San Martino in a late 15th Century marble tempietto, a little temple.

As well as an object of veneration, it was also the subject of an expletive. The ‘customary oath’ of William Rufus, William II of England, was apparently By the face of Lucca.’

So now you know! A lot to muse on when you pass that simple brown sign as you enter Posara. Can you see that driverless oxcart creaking through the village, with the enigmatic, inscrutable Holy Face gazing down?

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