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Spear of Destiny: The art and legend of the lance of Longinus

For 1000 years it was the mightiest symbol of power of the Holy Roman Empire and up till now legend tells us that it might be directly related to the death of Jesus Christ.

The infamous Longinus lance with its encased "Clavus domini" in the Kunsthistorische Museum in Vienna
Picture by Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien

The treasury in the Hofburg Palace in Vienna: crowds of tourists are lead through here during the warm summer months. Golden orbs, sceptres, crowns, delicately cut jewels, a sabre trimmed with diamonds. All this beauty shakes you up but after one hour of the guided tour all the historical dates and rulers' names can put you right back to sleep.

In room 11 a couple of German tourists admire the shine of the Imperial Crown in the spotlight. The tour guide says: "And here you can see our most precious and most interesting piece!" and he tells them everything he knows about the crown and its history. Then he still swiftly points at a glass cupboard and says: "By the way, this is the Holy Lance. In the Middle Ages it was believed that it was used to pierce Jesus while he was on the cross. It is also believed that the nails that were used to affix Jesus to the cross were smelted into the lance."

Ten seconds later the crowd, becoming indifferent after so much history, shuffles on to room 12, where a tooth of John the Baptists arouses interest of a retired dentist from Bielefeld.

A Holy Lance? Jesus's nails? And all that in Vienna? The golden sleeve that was put over the spearhead 650 years ago bears the inscription "Lancea et clavus domini" which means "Lance and nail of the Lord" On an empirial inventory list, the lance was even referred to as "sper gotes" (spear of god).

Now what is really the deal with this plain exhibit? Is all a myth or did the lance really once belong to a soldier named Longinus who checked if Jesus was really dead in 29? If this was true the lance must have been drenched in Jesus's blood.

"We know that this lance has been the mightiest symbol of reign of the Holy Roman Empire for more than a thousand years, so since about the ninth century" explains Dr. Helmut Trnek, director of the treasury and the Kunstkammer. "A ruler who owned this lance was believed to be invincible. It was a visible symbol that his power was God-given and that he was a representative of Jesus Christ. Thousands and thousands of believers pilgrimaged to Prague from the fourteenth till the sixteenth century just to see the lance. Napoleon wanted to own it. On Hitler's orders it was transported along with some other art treasures from Vienna to Nuremberg in 1938.

Dr. Trnek: "However, the results of our experiments show that this lance dates back to the eight century. You can also tell because of the way it is shaped and crafted. So Longinus couldn't have owned it."

Manfred Schreiner, professor at the Acedemy of Fine Arts in Vienna and his team use X-ray fluorescence analysis to ascertain if the about 10 centimetres long aglet that the spear contains is indeed like legend tells us, a piece of one of the nails that were used upon Jesus: "With this new method we are able to see if the spear contains any other elements but iron and if any part of the lance was manufactured under different chemical conditions."

Picture by Andrea Mantegna (1431 – 1506)

A scientific puzzle not likely to be solved completely and thus the history of the lance will remain a mystery. However this will certainly not stop the cult around it.

"We often get inquiries of religious cults who want to believe that the spear point is definitely the real lance of Longinus. I wrote an English text clarifying all the facts for those people but they stand firm. A couple of months ago this English television team came with an "expert" who was in all seriousness trying to test the lance for traces of Jesus's blood."

Hobby-mystics in the USA are making up stories on the internet that would easily give Hollywood enough material for a fourth part of the Indiana Jones trilogy: Hitler so said took possession of the lance as supernatural source of power during the Second World War to seize world domination.

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© A report by Tobias Micke (03-08-03) – Contact