Lucca is known as the city of 100 churches. The bigger ones are opened frequently and welcome visitors most days. And the rest seem to be opened at random days and times. When we see one of the smaller churches with an open door, we take the opportunity to step in and see what’s inside.
Yesterday, the door of Chiesa Di San Salvatore in Mustolio was opened and we popped inside. It is a smaller church made from simpler materials (brick instead of marble, two colors on the windows, etc.). I came home and read more about the church THEN had an opportunity to visit again today. I always find it more meaningful when I understand the history and context of what I am seeing.
It’s relatively easy to find dates of constructions and renovations, but I like to get a better sense of the story of the churches that I visit. The Wanderer’s Guide to Lucca by Brian R. Lindquist describes a period of colorful history of the church and its interactions with two larger churches in town: San Michele and San Frediano:
“During the early 1100s San Salvatore was a source of conflict between the churches of San Frediano and San Michele. At that time the canons of San Frediano were becoming a powerful group. They built a magnificent new church and began acquiring widespread property, in the process alienating not only the officers of other churches but at times the Bishop and even the Pope. At the same time San Salvatore was available and had acquired sufficient wealth to be worth a takeover. It was located between San Frediano and San Michele, but closer to the latter and, therefore, the Canons of San Michele saw themselves as the rightful proprietors. In the traditional method of negotiating such disputes, street fights broke out between the two claimants. Stones were thrown, holy services disrupted. The dispute went on for years. In 1140, his patience at an end, the Pope issued a bull granting the church to the monastery of San Frediano. Popes come and go, but grudges live on. The dispute drew the censure of successive popes, until it was finally settled in favor of San Frediano, which had established firm ties at the Vatican; the prior of San Frediano would soon after be appointed a Cardinal.” (Bold is my emphasis)
So, the next time that there is a disagreement in your church, be thankful that there aren’t street fights, thrown stones, and disrupted church services to resolve the differences!
Today the church is the under the care of the Confraternita di Misicordia (Fraternity of Mercy) that provides ambulance service (free of charge!) and other services to the Lucca community. The church has an active congregation and the only non-peaceful interruptions are the ambulance sirens.
The most treasured pieces of artwork of the church today are outside. Above two of the doors are lintels, carved horizontal supports of stone across the top of a doors. These are considered “narrative lintels” as they each tell a story, both related to St. Nicholas. Most of these narrative lintels have been removed and placed in museums. There are only nine remaining on churches in western Tuscany and this church has two of them! These lintels are more than 800 years old and are still in good shape.
The lintel on the right front door tells a story in three episodes:
- A pagan king sat at a table with his queen and others. He is being served a drink by a young man whom he had captured and enslaved. St. Nicholas appears and grabs the young man by his hair.
- St. Nicholas delivers the young man to his mother and there is a lot of celebrating.
- Similar to the first episode, but this time the young man’s father is at the head of the table.
The second lintel is considered to be even more valuable, but I couldn’t find it on my first visit. I wandered around the church with Google Street View and found it on the side of the building… today there is some construction materials in front of it and an ambulance next to it. Oh boy… The carving on this lintel represents “the miracle of the washing” of the newborn St. Nicholas who stands up in the tub where two women are washing him.
There are two wooden crucifixes in the church from the 1300s. Both of have been restored and repaired several times.
We have probably visited a dozen churches in Lucca – some large and grand and others much simpler. Each one is filled with beautiful artwork that was created to be placed in this (or another) church. Beside admiring the artwork, architecture, and contemplating their history, I take a few minutes to pray for those that serve and attend church there. I am thankful that I have the time to stop and explore them as we wander the city. And that I can share all of this with you.