The Holy Face Crucifix in the Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago

In one of the side chapels of Our Lady of Sorrows Basilica in Chicago, hangs a gorgeous copy of one of the most revered crucifixes of Medieval Europe. A notable artistic prototype with singular history and vestiges of mysterious Jerusalem origins, the Holy Face of Lucca is Church’s archetypal representation of the crucified Lord with intensely alive eyes; an icon that weds East and West and marks well over ten centuries of liturgical practice and veneration. It is a locus of an incredibly rich history of Christian consciousness – a microcosm of invaluable traces that come to make this Volto Santo one of the most eminent religious artefacts in our possession. 

“Before his gaze all falsehood melts away. This encounter with him, as it burns us, transforms and frees us, allowing us to become truly ourselves. All that we build during our lives can prove to be mere straw, pure bluster, and it collapses.” - Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi, 47.

The original crucifix in Lucca is itself a copy of a more ancient model that was most likely crafted sometime in the 10th century. No artistic precedent exists for this type of representation anywhere in known art historical documents. All we find are bits of sources scattered across the Middle East and Europe; some of them in Syrio-Palestinian manuscripts, some in Greek churches, a few in Spanish and French tympana, a couple in Southern Germany. None of these bits can be described as a direct influence, rather they all seem to have been in one way or another inspired by the cross of Lucca.

The crucifix has been labelled stylistically Ottonian although this is a label of the replica of a more ancient original that was probably a carved icon, and specifically a very ancient acheiropoieton – an image ‘not made by human hands.’ Permission to carve the replica is usually linked to the renovation of the Luccan Cathedral of San Martino around 1060 – 1070 AD. To all extant documentation, the previous crucifix has been almost entirely worn down by the faithful touching it and chipping away at the wood to obtain relics. An ancient way of honoring the crucifix, according to early 5th century sources found in Jerusalem, state that on important occasions the cross was handled by the Bishop in an upright position with two deacons standing on either side. The faithful would approach the crucifix, place his or her forehead on the wood of the cross, then kiss the feet or lower portion of the cross and finally look up at the Face of the Lord. This still remains the way in which a crucifix is to be venerated. This is certainly the way in which the Crucifix of Lucca would have been venerated by the faithful on Good Friday.

It is possible that some pieces of the original Volto Santo were transferred to the replica, perhaps into the relic repository between the shoulder blades of Christ. The original might have been part metal, the wood might have been cedar from Lebanon Рwe only have legendary information about these details, although in the Basilica of San Frediano in Lucca a fresco cycle exists which shows Nicodemus sculpting a crucifix from the cedar wood. The replica cross has been linked with the workshop of master Benedetto Antelami (or his predecessors). What is definitive is that the Lucca crucifix and its sacred schematism were a catalyst for developments in religious art all-across Europe. Some important artworks linked to the Luccan masterpiece are the Antelami Deposition, the Voterra Deposition, the Beirut Crucifix, the Braunschweig Cross, Crucifix of Bocca de Magra, the Holy Face of Sansepolcro, the Batlló Crucifix in Barcelona, and the Cross of Imervard in Germany. None of these, however, match the grandeur in the articulation characteristic of the Volto Santo of Lucca.

The replica sculpture is carved in walnut and in the round, according to a slightly more than life-size dimensions. No monumental size, freestanding round sculptures of the crucified are found in Christendom at that time. The famous Gero Crucifix coincides with the Lucca image historically, but it has never been claimed that Gero had origins in a likeness carved in Jerusalem or that it is a True Icon. Artistically, crucifix as a sculpted image does not appear in the Church until about the 8th century. First, we encounter drawn and engraved representation of crosses, then mosaics and mural images, and finally sculpted portrayals. Development of representation of Crucifixion scenes parallels important historical circumstances such as the Edict of Milan in 313 AD and the Ecumenical Synods of Late Antiquity. Notably, the Ecumenical Synod of 680 AD, battling iconoclasms, recommended that the Christ be represented in a true human likeness – this might have encouraged carving round figures and moving closer to more realistic representations of the body of the Lord. Acts of the Council of Nicea from 787 AD list Nicodemus as the author of the first likeness of the Crucified Lord. Since about the time of these meetings, carved crucifixes begin to make their way into churches and monasteries as important resources for the liturgy and public devotional life.

The likeness of Lucca is characteristically solemn and majestic – as is characteristic of Ottonian artworks. A dark-skinned Lord with handsome serious face, elegantly groomed hair and beard, elongated hands and feet appears as both crucified Jesus and apocalyptic Christ of the Last Judgement, and a Face of Mercy. His open eyes communicate a divinity alive and intentional in the self-sacrifice of the cross, temporal in human suffering and eternal in the act of self-giving. The figure is dressed in a specifically Syrian tunic called the colobium, which also happens to have been used as a coronation tunic for monarchs. The intricate crown made of sixteen pounds of gold, collar, skirt, and silver slippers have been added gradually between the 13th and 16th centuries with the most significant financial contributions credited to a female donor in Lucca. Documented records confirm that the corpus has been known as a crowned image even before the 12th century. Considered to be a relic from the Holy Land or at least its direct type, the crucifix of Lucca has been used for Adoratio Crucis on Good Fridays without the festive ornaments of crown, skirt, or the slippers, possibly as early as the 8th century. On Easter Mondays, it reappeared in the liturgies of the Luccan Cathedral as the glorified, resurrected Christ wearing all the ornaments seen on the photographs from the Chicago Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows.

Lucca was an important point on the relic route in Europe, the Via Francigena, between Rome and Canterbury. Visitors from the Holy Land were known to have travelled through Lucca for centuries before the Crucifix was first noted in the documents of the Cathedral. Charlemagne received relics through Lucca while he was staying in Ravenna. Patriarch of Jerusalem sent monks with relics to important personages on the continent through this route. Luccan connection with Jerusalem was a fact of life and the mysterious links of the Volto Santo to the Holy Land do not seems as improbable as might seem at first notice. As is often the case with ancient histories, legends and word of mouth histories can be as important to the reconstruction of what might have happened as the diocesan archives. A dedicated Volto Santo legend has contributed greatly to the popularization of the image. Pious history dates the translation of the Volto Santo to Lucca from Jerusalem to 742 AD. An even deeper point of origin is believed to reach to the Crucifixion and pharisee Nicodemus, who keeping the image of the Crucified in his mind’s eye sculpted his likeness under divine inspiration. The finishing touches on the face were carried out by angels who witnessed the crucifixion. The crucifix was said to have been hidden away by Christians until its existence was revealed in a dream to a pilgrim bishop staying Jerusalem. The crucifix was then miraculously translated in an unmanned boat to Luni, where the bishop of Lucca, also in a dream, was instructed to meet the boat with the faithful of Lucca. As the boat arrived and the cross was unveiled, the faithful sang the Gloria and carried the cross to Lucca where it has been installed ever since.

A beautiful replica of the Volto Santo in the Basilica of Our Lady of Sorrows in Chicago has been brought to the United States by the Servite Fathers who founded the parish. While many details remain buried in the past, it is ceratin that the replica was carved in Italy and transported to Chicago sometime at the end of the 19th century, all extant evidence points at Father Austin Morini, O.S.M as the person who can be credited with commissioning this image. The crucifix did not make its way immediately to Our Lady of Sorrows but was venerated in two smaller chapels in the city, attended by Italian immigrants and staffed by the Servites. Today, the crucifix is installed in the northernmost side chapel of the nave of Our Lady of Sorrows. Its location has the same spatio-directional relationship to the sanctuary of that church as the Holy Sepulcher has to Calvary in Jerusalem, and the same relationship the altar in the Cathedral of San Martino in Lucca has to its chapel of the Volto Santo. Starting with Late Antiquity, in addition to being placed on or near the altar of sacrifice, crucifixes were often installed in the north areas of the nave to echo the spatial configuration of the Passion monuments. In addition to meditating on the holy likeness, pilgrims can experience the sacred geography of Jerusalem not only in the Holy Land, but also in Lucca, and in Chicago. The Volto Santo in Our Lady of Sorrows, as far as evidence shows, is the only Volto Santo image in North America. It can be visited on any day if a pilgrim contacts the parish office.

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