Known as the “Illumination of the Holy Cross”, the event is the most important festival held in the Archdiocese of Lucca. Year after year since at least the 12th century, it commemorates a miracle dating back even further to the 8th century.

According to legend, a great cross that housed relics from Christ’s Passion miraculously arrived in Lucca on a cart drawn only by oxen. Carved into the huge crucifix was an image of Christ, apparently completed in a fit of religious fervour by Nicodemus, the Pharisee who helped to place the Messiah in the tomb. The holy image was taken to the Basilica di San Frediano, yet the following morning it had inexplicably disappeared. The people of Lucca were astounded to find the cross in an orchard near the Duomo di San Martino, and promptly saw the event as a “sign” of God’s presence. The cross is still housed today in the duomo, yet modern scholars agree that it is a copy made centuries ago to replace a damaged original.

The Lucchesi still reverently recreate the passage of the cross with a procession from the Basilica di San Frediano to the duomo on September 13. Religious, military and political authorities take centre stage with the statue, while all around them the people of Lucca hold candles aloft to light the way. This use of candles dates back to another tradition in which the subject peoples of Lucca would bring wax candles as tribute to the city on the feast day of the patron saint.

The following day features a solemn mass before the whole city then celebrates with markets in the streets and squares. And so the festival brings together cultural and religious authenticity, while still exhibiting a distinctly Italian sense of joy, passion and celebration.

Lucca may still be something of a hidden gem, often overshadowed in Tuscany by Florence, Pisa and Siena. However, it boasts one of the most intact medieval walls in Italy, has been dubbed the “City of a Hundred Churches” and, in September, it comes alive with a visually dazzling show of devotion.