We turn another page as we enter the cathedral. The church and its furnishings are the outcome of almost five hundred years of expansions, modifications, and restorations.
Altars, sculptures, paintings, intarsia, frescoes, furnishings, and organs have been added, removed, modified or stratified in the course of the centuries that have marked the history of the building and its relationship to events in the history of Lucca.
Nonetheless, the emergence of figurative art among all the modifications is substantial and was carried out between the 15th and 16th centuries.
In the right transept, there is the monumental altar containing the relics of Saint Regulus and also dedicated to Saints John the Baptist and Sebastian.
This work is by the Renaissance artist Matteo Civitali of Lucca, who produced the majority of the sculptures and reliefs found within the cathedral in the second half of the 15th century when it underwent a substantial “restyling”.
In the predella of the altar, there are three scenes representing the martyrdom of the three saints. As is known, at the request of Herodias in complicity with her young and beautiful daughter, Salome, John the Baptist was beheaded.
Matteo Civitali was a great protagonist of the period, up-to-date, and often a precursor of art and culture in regard to his contemporaries in Lucca and Tuscany. In a very refined bas-relief, he depicts Salome’s dance for King Herod and the head of John the Baptist on a platter.
The banquet scene takes place in a hall. The bas-relief catapults the viewer into a Renaissance interior where a modern-looking and carefree minstrel is playing a lute. The lute is resting on his leg and his foot is placed on a chair. Behind him is a “dispensarium”, a type of storeroom dating back to Roman times, with plates and bowls in view as they would have been in those days. At the opposite end, the waiters are entering the hall with plates brimming with food. In the centre, Salome is dancing in front of the table where King Herod and his court are seated.
This is an authentic “photograph” that reproduces in great detail the convivial table of a wealthy merchant of Lucca in the 15th century.
The birth of Protestantism in the 16th century and the ensuing Council of Trent, where the Catholic Church worked in strict accordance with the Emperor, led to a series of countermeasures dictating new lifestyles and precise regulations concerning the portrayal of both sacred and profane images. Consequently, the Cathedral of Lucca, under the careful supervision of Bishop Guidiccioni, underwent substantial alterations in regard to interior furnishings with a gradual reduction in the number of side altars and a change in the types of paintings displayed.
Along the left aisle of the church, the stories of the Blessed Virgin Mary are displayed, along the right aisle, those of her son, Jesus Christ. These were the two clear-cut cornerstones of the new Catholic reform.
The central altar along the right aisle has a Last Supper “interpreted” by the “revolutionary” Jacopo Robusti known as Tintoretto. It was painted in the last decade of the 16th century (between 1593 and 1595 ca). Notwithstanding a series of documents concerning the quality of the painting and the criticism the painting received upon its arrival in Lucca, it is necessary to point out the extraordinary impact the images must have had on the people of Lucca at that time.
In contrast to the Last Suppers portrayed during the Renaissance by the Florentine school, here everything is drama.
In the Florentine paintings, the geometric space always focuses on a perspective box which encloses Jesus and the Apostles usually in a pyramid-like formation in the centre of a room. Behind them there is always a clear sky with pleasant and delightful elements of nature that can be perceived, totally indifferent to the dramatic event unfolding.
Tintoretto’s painting, on the other hand, is highly dramatic and takes place in an indefinable setting, removed from time and space.
The protagonists, seated around a table placed lengthwise conforming to the vertical sense of the painting, are surrounded by dark rain clouds crowded with evanescent cherubs. The light emanates from Christ’s shoulders as if there were a theatre spotlight.
It is correct to speak of theatre and theatrical elements in regard to the artifice used by the artist to engage, attract, and amaze the observer.
The painting’s central position in relation to the other four canvases is perfect to draw people’s attention to the bread of the Lord. Not in the sense of bread as food in a moment of convivial gathering (as per the Protestant interpretation), but as a divine element able, thanks to transubstantiation, to transform itself into the actual body of Christ. Moving along the aisle with your eyes fixed on the table, thanks to a particular perspective technique widely used in churches already in the early Renaissance, the table’s position alters from vertical to oblique depending on where you are standing.
In this painting, however, there is a protagonist that outweighs the centrality of Christ, completely overturning the hierarchy of religion and saints.
A young woman is breast feeding her child. She is in a semi-prone position at the foot of two stairs that clearly separate her from the Lord’s table and make it appear as if she were at the base of a stage. She is the true protagonist and with her simple maternal gesture makes every woman and every mother that have ever seen her, protagonists in turn. By offering the first meal and looking toward Christ, she indicates the path toward the true food of redemption for every human being. This is Baroque artifice, able to transport spectators into the scene set before them as if they were in a time travel machine.