42 Historical Objects, No. 10: the “Holy Lance” or “Spear of Longinus.”

hofburg spear

The object pictured above has many names, such as the Hofburg Spear, the Holy Lance, the Spear of Longinus or the Spear of Destiny. It’s a great object to choose for this series because it bridges several ages of history, from the Middle Ages to the 20th century. It clearly relates to an even earlier event, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ in about 33 CE, though I choose the words “relates to” rather than “dates from.”

The legend is this: supposedly this weapon was wielded by a Roman soldier, said to have been named Longinus, who thrust it into Christ’s side while he hung on the cross to verify he was dead. Christian legend holds that a mixture of blood and water poured from the wound, which some recognize as a miracle. The spear later became a holy relic. This particular object definitely appeared at the court of Otto I, Holy Roman Emperor, who reigned in the early 10th century. Later it became part of the official imperial regalia of the Holy Roman Empire. It was also altered and re-worked various times, and it’s uncertain what pieces of the spear–if any–really date from the 1st century CE, except that the metal spike you see in the middle of the blade is universally claimed to have been one of the nails used to bind Christ to the cross.

The problem, though, is that there is more than one object that people have claimed to be the “real” Spear of Longinus. In addition to this one, which since 1946 has been kept at the Hofburg Palace in Vienna, there are at least three other weapons that have been asserted to be the real deal. “Pious fraud”–the manufacturing of fake objects that were claimed to be holy relics and sold to churches for big bucks–was a booming business in the Middle Ages. The Hofburg Spear pictured above may well be a fake. In 2003 a British metallurgist examined it and found that the spearhead was probably created in the 7th century CE, but the “nail” could possibly date from the time of Christ. The verdict, therefore, is inconclusive.

hre regalia 1946

Hidden away for safe-keeping during World War II, the Imperial Regalia of the Holy Roman Empire was recovered by Allied personnel in 1945. I believe the Spear is visible just above the British officer’s left hand on the right side of the picture.

The waters are further muddied by more recent legends. The Hofburg Spear was the subject of an infamous 1973 book called The Spear of Destiny, by occult author Trevor Ravenscroft, who claimed not only that the Spear of Longinus had mystical powers, but that Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime believed in these powers and were obsessed with obtaining the Spear. According to Ravenscroft, the whole reason behind Hitler’s Anschluss between Germany and Austria in 1938 was to get his hands on this object. (Gee, I thought it had to do with Lebensraum and territorial ambitions. Who knew?) Ravenscroft’s book is clearly nonsense, but it launched (or at least fueled) a pop culture fascination with “Nazi occultism” in the 1970s, a theme that eventually influenced Steven Spielberg when he created the 1981 adventure film Raiders of the Lost Ark. Unfortunately, far more people know poorly-sourced pseudohistory about the Spear as a result of Ravenscroft than knew the real story behind this object and other potential pious frauds dating from the Middle Ages.

Nonetheless, even with the pseudohistory stripped away, the story of this object is pretty amazing. There’s no question that it was in the hands of numerous Holy Roman Emperors at their coronations and that it’s been the focus of discussion, speculation and controversy for over 1000 years. Whether it really is the spear that pierced the side of Christ–well, I’ll leave that one as a matter for you and your clergyman to work through.

The photo of the Hofburg Spear is by the Secular Treasury Vienna and is used/relicensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.
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