The Holy Lance

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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 earliest account of the lance at the church of the Holy Sepulchre is 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 the reason for 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). The spear 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.

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