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Italy Is Home to Europe’s Oldest Wooden Religious Statue

Italian scientists have managed to prove the religious statue, the Face of Lucca, is in fact an original and over 1,000 years old.

In the town of Lucca, there sits a holy Christian relic that draws thousands of pilgrims every year. The Volto Santo de Lucca, The Face of Lucca, hangs in the Cathedral of San Martino and depicts a crucified Jesus dressed in a robe and golden crown.

The story goes that the statue was carved by Nicodemus, who helped prepare Jesus’ body for burial. Supposedly, he fell asleep before finishing the face, but when Nicodemus woke, it was complete. The statue was then hidden for over 700 years before it was rediscovered in the 8th-century by an Italian bishop. The discovery was made during the bishop’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land. It was put on an unmanned ship and was guided by an angel to the shores of Tuscany.

The Face of Lucca

On Friday, Annamaria Guisti, Italian art restorer and consultant for the Cathedral of San Martino, shared a significant discovery about this ancient relic. For many years, historians believed that this statue was a 12th-century recreation of the original. However, recent radiocarbon testing has proven it is over 1,000 years old. Not only does this mean the statue is original, but it also makes it Europe’s oldest wooden statue in existence. 

Guisti explained, “A new chapter [has opened] for art history.”

Testing began this past December when scientists took three samples from the figure to conduct their research. Scientists from the National Institute of Nuclear Physics stated the wood dates back to the end of the 7th-century at the latest. Guisti was particularly excited about this discovery because of how quickly wood can deteriorate over the years. 

“The miraculous thing is that it’s managed to survive to our days,” she said. 

Additionally, the Volto Santo de Lucca is a significant part of Lucca’s culture and history. During the Middle Ages, many people believed the city had a divine protector watching over them. The statue is even mentioned in Dante’s Inferno.

Cathedral of San Martino

Every year the residents hold the Festival of Santa Croce dedicated to the statue and its miracle. The figure of Jesus is dressed in gold vestments, and the Cathedral opens to visiting pilgrims who wish to pray in front of the holy relic. At night, there is a grand procession throughout the city where participants carry candles and other religious icons. The festival concludes with a special mass held the following day. 

Art historian Stefano Martinelli said, “It is a symbol of pride for a city-state that remained an independent republic for seven centuries, with a celestial defender on its side.”

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