Welcome to Rome Across Europe!
Having so much interest in Ancient Rome, we are always curious about things considered to be mythological or holy. Religion in Ancient Rome transitioned from multiple deities and the Cultus Imperiales to Christianity and the Sacrum Romanum Imperium, so there are tons of things considered sacred.
Known also as the Holy Lance, the Holy Spear, or the Spear of Destiny, the Lancea Longini is the lance that pierced the side of Jesus as he hung on the cross, according to the Gospel of John. Several churches across the world claim to possess this lance.
The lancea is mentioned in the Gospel of John (19:31–37), but not the Synoptic Gospels. The gospel states that the Romans planned to break Jesus’ legs, a practice known as crurifragium, which was a method of hastening death during a crucifixion.
Just before they did so, they realized that Jesus was already dead and that there was no reason to break his legs. To make sure that he was dead, a Roman Centurio (named in extra-Biblical tradition as Longinus) stabbed him in the side.
One of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance, and immediately there came out blood and water.
Longinus’s name was not given in the Gospel of John, but in the oldest known references to the legend, the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus appended to late manuscripts of the 4th Century Acts of Pilate.
A form of the name Longinus occurs on a miniature in the Rabula Gospels (conserved in the Laurentian Library, Florence), which was illuminated by one Rabulas in the year 586. In the miniature, the name LOGINOS (ΛΟΓΙΝΟC) is written in Greek characters above the head of the soldier who is thrusting his lance into Christ’s side.
The phenomenon of blood and water was considered a miracle by Origen. Catholics, while accepting the biological reality of blood and water as emanating from the pierced heart and body cavity of Christ, also acknowledge the allegorical interpretation: it represents one of the main key teachings/mysteries of the Church, and one of the main themes of the Gospel of Matthew, which is the homoousian interpretation adopted by the First Council of Nicaea, that “Jesus Christ was both true God and true man.”
The blood symbolizes his humanity, the water his divinity. A ceremonial remembrance of this is done by a Catholic priest during Mass: The priest pours a small amount of water into the wine before the consecration, an act which acknowledges Christ’s humanity and divinity and recalls the issuance of blood and water from Christ’s side on the cross.
There have been three or four major relics that are claimed to be the Holy Lance or parts of it.
The first historical reference to the lance was made by the pilgrim Antoninus of Piacenza (AD 570) in his descriptions of the holy places of Jerusalem, writing that he saw in the Basilica of Mount Zion “the crown of thorns with which Our Lord was crowned and the lance with which He was struck in the side”.
A mention of the lance occurs in the so-called Breviarius at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. The presence in Jerusalem of the relic is attested by Cassiodorus as well as by Gregory of Tours, who had not actually been to Jerusalem.
In AD 615, Jerusalem and its relics were captured by the Persian forces of King Khosrau II. According to the Chronicon Paschale, the point of the lance, which had been broken off, was given in the same year to Nicetas, who took it to Constantinople and deposited it in the church of Hagia Sophia, and later to the Church of the Virgin of the Pharos.
This point of the lance was acquired by the Latin Emperor, Baldwin II of Constantinople, who later sold it to Louis IX of France. The point of the lance was then enshrined with the crown of thorns in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. During the French Revolution these relics were removed to the Bibliothèque Nationale but the point subsequently disappeared.
As for the larger portion of the lance, Arculpus claimed he saw it at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre around 670 in Jerusalem, but there is otherwise no mention of it after the sack in AD 615. Some claim that the larger relic had been conveyed to Constantinople in the 8th Century, possibly at the same time as the Crown of Thorns.
At any rate, its presence at Constantinople seems to be clearly attested by various pilgrims, particularly Russians, and, though it was deposited in various churches in succession, it seems possible to trace it and distinguish it from the relic of the point. Sir John Mandeville declared in 1357 that he had seen the blade of the Holy Lance both at Paris and at Constantinople, and that the latter was a much larger relic than the former.
“The lance which pierced Our Lord’s side” was among the relics at Constantinople shown in the 1430s to Pedro Tafur, who added “God grant that in the overthrow of the Greeks they have not fallen into the hands of the enemies of the Faith, for they will have been ill-treated and handled with little reverence.”
Whatever the Constantinople relic was, it did fall into the hands of the Turks, and in 1492, under circumstances minutely described in Pastor‘s History of the Popes, the Sultan Bayezid II sent it to Pope Innocent VIII to encourage the pope to continue to keep his brother and rival Zizim (Cem Sultan) prisoner. At this time great doubts as to its authenticity were felt at Rome, as Johann Burchard records, because of the presence of other rival lances in Paris (the point that had been separated from the lance), Nuremberg and Armenia.
In the mid-18th Century Pope Benedict XIV states that he obtained from Paris an exact drawing of the point of the lance, and that in comparing it with the larger relic in St. Peter’s he was satisfied that the two had originally formed one blade. This relic has never since left Rome, and its resting place is at Saint Peter’s.
The Spear of Destiny in Vienna is displayed in the Imperial Treasury at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, Austria. In the 10th Century, the Holy Roman Emperors came into possession of the lance, according to sources from the time of Otto I.
In 1000, Otto III gave Boleslaw I of Poland a replica of the Holy Lance at the Congress of Gniezno. In 1084, Henry IV had a silver band with the inscription “Nail of Our Lord” added to it. This was based on the belief that this was the lance of Constantine the Great which enshrined a nail used for the Crucifixion.
In 1273, the Holy Lance was first used in a coronation ceremony. Around 1350, Charles IV had a golden sleeve put over the silver one, inscribed “Lancea et clavus Domini” (Lance and nail of the Lord). In 1424, Sigismund had a collection of relics, including the lance, moved from his capital in Prague to his birthplace, Nuremberg, and decreed them to be kept there forever. This collection was called the Imperial Regalia (Reichskleinodien).
When the French Revolutionary army approached Nuremberg in the spring of 1796, the city councilors decided to remove the Reichskleinodien to Vienna for safe keeping. The collection was entrusted to one “Baron von Hügel“, who promised to return the objects as soon as peace had been restored and the safety of the collection assured.
However, the Holy Roman Empire was disbanded in 1806 and the Reichskleinodien remained in the keeping of the Habsburgs. When the city councilors asked for the Reichskleinodien back, they were refused. As part of the Imperial Regalia it was kept in the Imperial Treasury and was known as the lance of Saint Maurice.
During the Anschluss, when Austria was annexed to Germany, the Reichskleinodien were returned to Nuremberg and afterwards hidden. They were found by invading U.S. troops and returned to Austria by American General George S. Patton after World War II.
Dr. Robert Feather, an English metallurgist and technical engineering writer, tested the lance for a documentary in January 2003. He was given unprecedented permission not only to examine the lance in a laboratory environment, but was allowed to remove the delicate bands of gold and silver that hold it together.
In the opinion of Feather and other academic experts, the likeliest date of the spearhead is the 7th Century AD – only slightly earlier than the Museum’s own estimate. However, Dr. Feather stated in the same documentary that an iron pin hammered into the blade and set off by tiny brass crosses, long claimed to be a nail from the crucifixion, is “consistent” in length and shape with a 1st Century AD Roman nail.
According to Paul the Deacon, the inauguration rite of a Lombard king consisted essentially of his grasping of a sacred/royal lance. Milan, which had been the capital of the Western Roman Empire in the time of Constantine, was the capital of the Lombard kings Perctarit and his son Cunipert, who became Catholic Christians in the 7th Century.
Thus it seems possible that the iron point of the Lombard royal lance might have been recast in the 7th Century in order to enshrine one of the 1st Century Roman nails that St. Helena was reputed to have found at Calvary and brought to Milan, thus giving a more Christian sacred aura to the old pagan royal lance.
If Charlemagne’s inauguration as the King of the Lombards in 774 had likewise included his grasping of this Christian sacred lance or royal lance, this would explain how it would have eventually become the oldest item in the German Imperial Regalia. The Iron Crown of Lombardy (dated to the 8th Century), which eventually became the primary symbol of Lombard kingship, takes its name from the tradition that it contains one of the holy nails.
The Holy Spear in Echmiadzin is conserved in the religious capital of Armenia. The first source that mentions it is a text Holy Relics of Our Lord Jesus Christ, in a 13th Century Armenian manuscript.
According to this text, the spear which pierced Jesus was to have been brought to Armenia by the Apostle Thaddeus. The manuscript does not specify precisely where it was kept, but the Holy Spear gives a description that exactly matches the lance since the 13th Century, the name of Geghardavank (Monastery of the Holy Lance).
In 1655, the French traveler Jean-Baptiste Tavernier was the first Westerner to see this relic in Armenia. In 1805, the Russians captured the monastery and the relic was moved to Tchitchanov Geghard, Tbilisi, Georgia. It was later returned to Armenia at Echmiadzin, where it is always visible in the museum Manoogian, enshrined in a 17th Century reliquary.
During the June 1098 Siege of Antioch, a poor monk named Peter Bartholomew reported that he had a vision in which St. Andrew told him that the Lance of Longinus was buried in the Church of St. Peter in Antioch. After much digging in the cathedral, Peter apparently discovered a lance.
Despite the doubts of many, including the papal legate Adhemar of Le Puy, the discovery of the Holy Lance of Antioch inspired the starving Crusaders to break the siege and secure the city.
Another lance has been preserved at Kraków, Poland, since at least the 13th Century. However, German records indicate that it was a copy of the Vienna lance. Emperor Henry II had it made with a small sliver of the original lance. Another copy was given to the Hungarian king at the same time.
In his opera Parsifal, Richard Wagner identifies the Holy Spear with 2 items that appear in Wolfram von Eschenbach‘s medieval poem Parzival, a bleeding spear in the Castle of the Grail and the spear that has wounded the Fisher King.
The opera’s plot concerns the consequences of the spear’s loss by the Knights of the Grail and its recovery by Parsifal. Having decided that the blood on the Spear was that of the wounded Savior, Jesus is never named in the opera, Wagner has the blood manifest itself in the Grail rather than on the spearhead.
The Spear of Destiny is a name given to the Lance of Longinus in various accounts that attribute mystical powers to it. Many of these have originated in recent times, and several popular New Age and conspiracy theory books have popularized the legend of the Spear.
Trevor Ravenscroft’s 1973 book, The Spear of Destiny (as well as a later book, The Mark of the Beast), claims that Adolf Hitler started World War II in order to capture the spear, with which he was obsessed. At the end of the war the spear came into the hands of US General George S. Patton. According to legend, losing the spear would result in death, and that was fulfilled when Hitler committed suicide and Patton died in a car accident in an army camp.
Dr. Howard A. Buechner, MD, professor of medicine at Tulane and then Louisiana State University, wrote 2 books on the spear. Buechner was a retired colonel with the U.S. Army who served in World War II and had written a book about the Dachau massacre.
He claims he was contacted by a former U-boat submariner, the pseudonymous “Capt. Wilhelm Bernhart”, who claimed the spear currently on display in Vienna is a fake. “Bernhart” said the real spear was sent by Hitler to Antarctica along with other Nazi treasures, under the command of Col. Maximilian Hartmann.
In 1979 Hartmann allegedly recovered the treasures. Bernhart presented Buechner with the log from this expedition as well as pictures of the objects recovered, claiming that after the Spear of Destiny was recovered, it was hidden somewhere in Europe by a Nazi secret society. After contacting most of the members of the alleged expedition and others involved, including Hitler Youth Leader Artur Axmann, Buechner became convinced the claims were true.
The Lance appears in many DC Comics titles. In DC continuity, the Spear of Destiny has had many owners over the years, most notably Adolf Hitler who used it to prevent superpowered characters (particularly those vulnerable to magic) from interfering in World War II. As Allied forces closed in, Hitler used a dark magical ritual to taint the Spear itself and cause anyone who used it to become corrupted by the spear’s magical powers.
In the movie The Librarian: Quest for the Spear, the protagonist Flynn Carsen searches for the Spear of Destiny.
In the movie Constantine, the spear is used to help the devil’s son come to earth.
The Lance, referred to as the “Spear of Longinus”, is a plot point in season 3 of the 2011 TV series The Borgias. Pope Alexander VI commissions the Jewish population of Rome to locate the Spear for him, as he would like a holy relic to display in the Vatican in time for the New Year celebration in 1500.
In exchange, the Jews will be mainstreamed into the Papal States’ economy. Alexander’s enemies attempt to discredit the Jews’ discovery to keep them marginalized and interfere with the Borgia, but they successfully expose the Cardinals’ spear as a fake. It is left vague as to whether the Jews’ spear is genuine, and as to whether Alexander believed them.
As you can see there is quite a lot of mystery, interest and intrigue associated with the Lance of Longinus. How anyone not could find this interesting is something beyond our scope of imagination.
We hope you enjoyed today’s adventure and look forward to having you back again soon. Till next time, Don’t Stop Rome-ing!
Brown, Arthur and Charles Lewis. Bleeding Lance. Modern Language Association of America, 1910.
Buechner, Howard A; Bernhart, Wilhelm. Adolf Hitler And The Secrets Of The Holy Lance. Thunderbird Press, 1988.
Buechner, Howard A; Bernhart, Wilhelm. Hitler’s Ashes – Seeds Of A New Reich. Thunderbird Press, 1989.
Childress, David Hatcher. Pirates and the Lost Templar Fleet: The Secret Naval War Between the Knights Templar and the Vatican. Adventures Unlimited Press, 2003.
Crowley, Cornelius Joseph. The Legend of the Wanderings of the Spear of Longinus. Heartland Book, 1972.
Kirchweger, Franz, ed. Die Heilige Lanze in Wien. Insignie – Reliquie – Schicksalsspeer [The Holy Lance in Vienna. Insignia – Relic – Spear of Destiny]. Vienna: Kunsthistorisches Museum, 2005.
MacLellan, Alec. The Secret of the Spear: The Mystery of the Spear of Longinus. Souvenir Press, 2005.
Morris, Colin. “Policy and vision: The case of the Holy Lance found at Antioch”, in John Gillingham & J. C. Holt, War and Government in the Middle Ages: Essays in honour of J. O. Prestwich, Boydell, 1984.
Schier, Volker and Corine Schleif. “The Holy Lance as Late Twentieth-century Subcultural Icon.” Subcultural Icons, edited by Keyan Tomaselli and David Scott. Walnut Creek: Left Coast Press, 2009.
Schier, Volker and Corine Schleif. “Seeing and Singing, Touching and Tasting the Holy Lance. The Power and Politics of Embodied Religious Experiences in Nuremberg, 1424–1524.” Signs of Change. Transformations of Christian Traditions and their Representation in the Arts, 1000–2000, edited by Nils Holger Petersen, Claus Cluver, and Nicolas Bell. Amsterdam – New York: Rodopi, 2004.
Sheffy, Lester Fields. Use of the Holy Lance in the First Crusade. L.F. Sheffy, 1915.
Smith, Jerry E. & George Piccard. Secrets of the Holy Lance. Adventures Unlimited Press, 2005.