The Holy Lance
We read in the Gospel of St. John (19:34), that, after our Saviour’s death, “one of the soldiers with a spear [lancea] opened his side and immediately there came out blood and water”. Of the weapon thus sanctified nothing is known until the pilgrim St. Antoninus of Piancenza (A.D. 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”. The mention of the lance at the church of the Holy Sepulchre in the so-called “Breviarus”, as M. de Mely points out (Exuviae, III, 32), is not to be relied on. On the other hand, in a miniature of the famous Syriac manuscript of the Laurentian Library at Florence, illuminated by one Rabulas in the year 586, the incident of the opening of Christ’s side is given a prominence which is highly significant. Moreover, the name Longinus — if, indeed, this is not a later addition — is written in Greek characters (LOGINOS) above the head of the soldier who is thrusting his lance into our Saviour’s side. This seems to show that the legend which assigns this name to the soldier (who, according to the same tradition, was healed of ophthalmia and converted by a drop of the precious blood spurting from the wound) is as old as the sixth century. And further it is tempting, even if rash, to conjecture that the name Logginos, or Logchinos is in some way connected with the lance (logche). Be this as it may, a spear believed to be identical with that which pierced our Saviour’s body was venerated at Jerusalem at the close of the sixth 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 (P.L., LXXI, 712). In 615 Jerusalem was captured by a lieutenant of the Persian King Chosroes. The sacred relics of the Passion fell into the hands of the pagans, and, 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 St. Sophia. This point of the lance, which was now set in an “yeona”, or icon, many centuries afterwards (i.e., in 1244) was present by Baldwin to St. Louis, and it was enshrined with the Crown of Thorns in the Sainte Chapelle. During the French Revolution these relics were removed to the Bibliotheque Nationale, and, although the Crown has been happily preserved to us, the other has now disappeared.
As for the second and larger portion of the lance, Arculpus, about 670, saw it at Jerusalem, where it must have been restored by Heraclius, but it was then venerated at the church of the Holy Sepulchre. After this date we practically hear no more of it from pilgrims to the Holy Land. In particular, St. Willibald, who came to Jerusalem in 715, does not mention it. 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, whose credit as a witness has of late years been in part rehabilitated, 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 Bajazet sent it to Innocent VIII to conciliate his favour towards the sultan’s brother Zizim, who was then the pope’s prisoner. This relic has never since left Rome, where it is preserved under the dome of St. Peter’s. 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 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 at Vienna and is known as the lance of St. Maurice. This weapon was used as early as 1273 in the coronation ceremony of the Emperor of the West, and from 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 Cracow, but, though it is alleged to have been there for eight centuries, it is impossible to trace its earlier history.
The one work of authority which thoroughly discusses all the available evidence is that of M.F. DE MELY published at Paris in 1904 as the third volume of the Exuviae Sacrae Constantinopolitanae of the COMTE DE RIANT. It contains authentic drawings never before published and a valuable selection of Pieces justificatives. Besides this all-important work, the reader may be referred to ROHAULT DE FLEURY, Mémoire sur les Instruments de la Passion (Paris, 1870), 272- 75; BEURLIER, s.v. Lance in Dict. de la Bible; SCHROD in Kirchenlex., VII, 1419- 22; MARTIN, Reliques de la Passion.
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APA citation. Thurston, H. (1910). The Holy Lance. In The Catholic Encyclopedia. New York: Robert Appleton Company.
MLA citation. Thurston, Herbert. “The Holy Lance.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 8. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910.
Ecclesiastical approbation. Nihil Obstat. October 1, 1910. Remy Lafort, S.T.D., Censor. Imprimatur. +John Cardinal Farley, Archbishop of New York.