The Duomo di San Martino, built in a strategic point of the ancient Roman town at the crossroads of the two main streets and near to the city walls, has not left clear indications as to its origins.
The only certain fact is that, at the time of San Frediano in the 6th century, there was already a church in that position, which had replaced the primitive cathedral of Santa Reparata when it was no longer able to contain all the population. In the 8th century a crypt was added for the body of San Regolo, which had been transferred from Populonia. The Duomo was completely rebuilt between 1060 and 1070, with five naves, re-using materials as ancient columns and capitals.
However, little remains even of this phase of the church. The cathedral acquired its present appearance after interventions in the 12th century, which finished in 1204, adding the portico to the façade, with three large arches and the "loggias" with multiform columns, while the pediment, although planned, was never realised.
In the 1300s the church's palnt became a Latin cross and, in the 14th and 15th centuries the naves were reduced to three. The decorative work also saw the participation of Jacopo della Quercia, sculptor of the Fonte Gaia (Gaia Fountain) at Siena.
At the end of the 15th century the interior too was finished, decorated with precious paintings during the time of the Counter-reformation. Today on the façade there stands out a copy of the scene of St. Martin with the poor man, while the original is inside, on the counter-façade. Its sculptor remains unknown, but it is probably the first in-the-round statue in the history of Italian art. The sculptures of the left portal are the work of Nicola Pisano.
Next to the Duomo rises the crenellated bell-tower, which was finished in the 13th century and is decorated with hanging arches, single- and four-light windows opening progressively to lighten it; its presence makes the background of the square asymmetrical, like the three arches of the portico, the right-hand one being smaller than the others.
Precisely in the centre of the left nave the Templet of the Holy Face is well visible. A fascinating legend tells that it was Nicodemus, a disciple of Jesus, who made the Crucifix, drawing inspiration from the dead Christ, but the face of the statue modelled itself, or perhaps it was the angels that created it. Transported by an unpiloted ship to the port of Luni, it reached the centre of Lucca on a mysterious cart drawn by tameless horses.
The Holy Face became a pilgrim destination and the symbol of Lucca; its worship was already well-established in the 11th century. Still today, in September every year, it is taken from S. Martino to S. Frediano. In spite of its oriental features, the statue is not of Syriac origin, as the iconography of the crucifix did not yet exist in the early Christian art of the Orient; little is therefore known of its origin. It may be a copy of a lost 8th century original, but it is certainly mentioned by sources of the 1100s.
The great wooden statue indeed represents the Crucifix, but living and victorious, dressed in a tunic, the "colobium" as it is described in the Apocalypse, and wearing the golden belt typical of kings. The original colouring has been conserved fairly well: the red of the lips, the black hair and the garment, now blue, which was however originally red and symbolised martyrdom.
The statue was made using three different woods and its role, originally, was as a reliquary which contained ampoules of the blood of Christ in a hollow behind the shoulders.
The cross bearing the statue was added later. The symmetrical lines recalling drapery give a sense of movement to the wooden statue. The sculpture is in fact flat like a bas-relief, except for the head, which projects noticeably forwards when seen in profile. Evidently the statue was sculpted with a precise idea in mind as to its collocation, which must have been in a raised position.