Thank you for following this journal. The WXXI Travel Club has arrived in Tuscany, and my thoughts are spinning in a thousand directions. We’ve been on a medieval whirlwind: a few hours in Sienna, a day in Florence, a rush into the Tuscan hill town San Gimignano. My feelings trace an involuntary path that might make for more interesting reading for you than a laundry list of sites.
In Lucca I saw the face of Jesus, and it unnerved and saddened me in the most unexpected way. Lucca (pronounced “LUKE-ah”) is the only fortress city in Italy that hasn’t fought a war to defend itself. Composers Giocomo Puccini, Luigi Boccherini, and Alfredo Catalani all grew up within its thick defensive wall, which is now a beautiful public park and one of the world’s perfect walking paths, about three miles all the way around. (Imagine if Rochester’s leaders turned the Inner Loop into a green space for pedestrians, with trees, benches, and statuary.) I strolled the perimeter of the city with two lovely companions and fell in love with Lucca.
So, as I said, there I saw the face of Jesus, or rather, what’s said to be the only face of Christ reproduced by someone who knew him. Lucca began as a Roman settlement. The legend is that Nicodemus, one of Jesus’ disciples, carved his likeness into a piece of wood about the size of an oar. He couldn’t finish the face since the Savior was so indescribable, so he just left it blank. Overnight, in Jerusalem, angels or elves or someone miraculously finished the face. This carving, now a crucifix, vanished for seven hundred years, reappeared, and was dragged to Lucca by wild oxen in 782. Art historians might quibble with this account, pointing out that the style of the supernatural artists looks suspiciously like those of 12th century Byzantines. But the Lucchesi (the residents of Lucca) repeat the story over and over and call the crucifix Volto Santo. It hangs in the San Martino Cathedral. According to this likeness, Jesus was a black man with a long face and enormous eyes. He was beautiful.
(I didn’t take this picture myself as we weren’t allowed to photograph.)
So why, you are wondering, did this face make me sad? As we were studying Volto Santo through an elaborate metal grate, our guide told us that one third of the Crusaders, on their way to the Holy Land, stopped in front of the crucifix to be blessed. Believing this bit of the story and looking up at the long face of Christ, I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck. The Crusades wrought so much suffering, death, and destruction, and for what? Profit? Ambition? Adventure?
This figure was not blessing the peacemakers.