The Most Precious Blood of Mantova
Few relics have been more precious in the Christian imagination than the blood of Christ. The Most Precious Blood of Mantova, contained in a set of sacred vessels, rests in the crypt of the Basilica di Sant’Andrea. The present-day veneration of the relic includes an annual Good Friday procession through the city’s streets.
The earliest source for the Most Precious Blood of Mantova appears in the Annales Regni Francorum for the year 804, which states that Pope Leo III went to Mantova at the request of Charlemagne to verify rumors of the newly-discovered relic. In 924, due to the Hungarian invasion of Italy, the relic was hidden and subsequently lost until it was rediscovered again in 1048.
Two saints are central to the Mantova legend. The first is Longinus, the name traditionally given to the Roman soldier who pierced the side of the crucified Jesus (John 19:34) and proclaimed him to be the Son of God (Mark 15:39). According to the story, Longinus, whose name is derived from the Latin longus (‘long’) in reference to his spear, gathered a portion of blood-soaked earth at the foot of the cross. Longinus’ death in Cappadocia, the Mantova account is said that he was a native-born Italian, who, joining the nascent Christian movement, moved to Mantova where he was soon martyred. He is recognized as a saint in the Church.
The second saint involved in the legend is the Apostle St Andrew, the disciple of Jesus and brother of St Peter. It is said St Andrew appeared in the dreams of two different devotees, revealing the location of the Holy Blood in both the ninth and the eleventh centuries.
The Basilica di Sant’Andrea houses the relic in a crypt below the central nave, is dedicated to St Andrew. The church, built over a former Franciscan foundation in order to accommodate the growing pilgrim crowds, was founded in 1462 just one year after the head of St Andrew was given to Pope Pius II by the Byzantine despot Thomas Palaeologus. The apostolic relic has been enshrined in one of the four central pillars of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.
Soon after the eleventh-century rediscovery of the Holy Blood, Pope Leo IX (1053) and Emperor Henry III (1055) came to Mantova to adore the relic, which was subsequently divided into three parts. One portion remained in Mantova, while the pope and the emperor took their shares respectively to Rome and Germany. The emperor’s portion was eventually given to the Weingarten Abbey, which still acknowledges the Italian provenance of its sacred relic. To this day, the Holy Blood of Weingarten is solemnly carried in a grand equestrian procession on the Friday after Ascension Day, locally known as Blutfreitag.