- This article concerns the historical and religious issues regarding the lance used at the Crucifixion in Christian belief. For the elaborate mythology surrounding this relic and modern legend, see Spear of Destiny.
... but one of the soldiers pierced his side with a lance, and immediately there came out blood and water. The Gospel of JohnChapter 19, verse 34
The lance is only mentioned in the Gospel of John and not any of the Synoptic Gospels. In Chapter 19, verse 31, it states that the Romans planned to break Jesus' legs, a pratice known as crurifragium, which was a painful method of hastening the death during a crucifixion. Just before they do so, they realized he was already dead and that there was no reason to break his legs. To make sure he was dead, the unnamed soldier stabs him; the water was an indicator of death. The phenomenon of blood and water was considered a miracle by Origen, but the Christians generally see it in a deeper meaning: the sacred mysteries issuing from from the side of Christ, the birth of the Church [as Eve was taken from the side of Adam, et cetera]. The water may be explained biologically by the piercing of the pericardial sinus. Still it is generally accepted as miraculous.
In Christian mythology the Holy Lance is the lance used at the Crucifixion, which was later identified with a relic or relics that survive.
The lance is unknown until the pilgrim St. Antoninus of Piacenza (AD 570), describing the holy places of Jerusalem, tells us that he saw in the Basilica of Mount Sion "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 also at the church of the Holy Sepulchre occurs in the so-called Breviarus.
Centuries later, the name of "Longinus" became associated with the unnamed soldier of the Crucifixion. In a miniature of the famous Syriac manuscript of the Laurentian Library, Florence, illuminated by one Rabulas in the year 586, the incident of the opening of Christ's side is given a significant prominence: the name LOGINOS is written in Greek characters above the head of the soldier who is thrusting his lance into Christ's side, the earliest record, if the inscription is not a later addition, of the legend. This leads one of the lance's many names, the Lance of Longinus.
A spear was venerated as the Holy Lance at Jerusalem by the close of the 6th century, and the presence there of this important relic is attested half a century earlier by Cassiodorus (In Ps. lxxxvi, P.L., LXX, 621) and after him by Gregory of Tours], who had not been to Jerusalem. In 615 Jerusalem and its relics were captured by 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. This point of the lance, which was now set in an "ycona", or icon in 1244 was sold by Baldwin II of Constantinople to Louis IX of France, and it was enshrined with the Crown of Thorns in the Sainte Chapelle in Paris. During the French Revolution these relics were removed to the Bibliotheque Nationale, and disappeared. (The present "Crown of Thorns" is a wreath of rushes.)
As for the larger portion of the lance, Arculpus saw it at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre around 670 in Jerusalem, where it must have been restored by Heraclius, but otherwise there is no further mention of it after the sack of Jerusalem in 615. There is consequently some reason to believe that the larger relic as well as the point had been conveyed to Constantinople before the tenth 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 companion 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.
Whatever the Constantinople relic was, it fell into the hands of the Turks, and in 1492, under circumstances minutely described in Pastor's History of the Popes, the Sultan Beyazid II sent it to Innocent VIII to encourage the pope to continue to keep his brother Zizim prisoner. This relic has never since left Rome, where it is preserved under the dome of Saint Peter's Basilica. Benedict XIV (De Beat. et Canon., IV, ii, 31) 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. M. Mély published for the first time in 1904, an accurate design of the Roman relic of the lance head, and the fact that it has lost its point is as conspicuous as in other, often quite fantastic, delineations of the Vatican lance.
At the time of the sending of the lance to Innocent VIII, great doubts as to its authenticity were felt at Rome, as Johann Burchard's "Diary" (I, 473-486, ed. Thusasne) plainly shows, on account of the rival lances known to be preserved at Nuremberg, Paris, etc., and on account of the supposed discovery of the Holy Lance at Antioch by the revelation of St. Andrew, in 1098, during the First Crusade. Raynaldi, the Bollandists, and many other authorities believed that the lance found in 1098 afterwards fell into the hands of the Turks and was that sent by Bajazet to Pope Innocent, but from M. de Mely's investigations it seems probable that it is identical with the relic now jealously preserved at Etschmiadzin in Armenia. This was never in any proper sense a lance, but rather the head of a standard, and it may conceivably (before its discovery under very questionable circumstances by the crusader Peter Bartholomew) have been venerated as the weapon with which certain Jews at Beirut struck a figure of Christ on the Cross; an outrage which was believed to have been followed by a miraculous discharge of blood.
Another lance claiming to be that which produced the wound in Christ's side is now preserved among the imperial insignia kept in the Schatzkammer in Vienna and is known as the lance of Saint Maurice. This weapon was used as early as 1273 in the coronation ceremony of the Holy Roman Emperor and form an earlier date as an emblem of investiture. It came to Nuremberg in 1424, and it is also probably the lance, known as that of the Emperor Constantine, which enshrined a nail or some portion of a nail of the Crucifixion. The story told by William of Malmesbury of the giving of the Holy Lance to King Athelstan of England by Hugh Capet seems to be due to a misconception. One other remaining lance reputed to be that concerned in the Passion of Christ is preserved at Krakow, but, though it is alleged to have been there for eight centuries, it is impossible to trace its earlier history.