Longinus – John 19:32-34

The the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and then the other who was crucified with him. But when they came to Jesus and saw that he was already dead, they did not break his legs, but one of the soldiers pierced his side with his spear, and out gushed blood and water.

(tr. mine)

There is so much that is interesting in this passage, particularly the way that John’s community of Jesus followers used blood and water as important symbolic elements that go together. But that’s for another day. Today I want to talk about the soldier.

On Saturday we went for a family trip to the Museum of Welsh Life in Cardiff and saw St Teilo’s church.

This is a church that was rescued and moved to the museum from an almost ruined state. Amazingly, however, in the ruins were preserved some of the original wall-paintings.

Longinus at the Cross

A mural of Longinus's sight restored, in St Teilo's church, St Fagans National History Museum, Wales.

Old churches are very common in the UK: state churches in every parish. But in the reformation, the original wall paintings were whitewashed or destroyed. Go into an anglican church now and it will have a plain white interior. Almost no churches preserve the rich paintings that would have been universal.

St Teilo’s, in this restoration, shows the kinds of paintings that a small rural backwater church would have been able to afford. It is a truly amazing place, and anyone visiting Wales should go, I think (but I know I’m a religion geek). Anyway. Looking at the painting of the end of the crucifixion, I was unfamiliar with the roman soldier who looked to me liked he’d lost an eye. My wife speculated that there might be a folk-tale of the soldier who pierced Jesus’s side having been made blind by the act. So we did some research. And it is a fascinating story.

The soldier is first named in an appendix to the Acts of Pilate, a work of uncertain date (may be as early as late second century, most like to be much later, 5th or 6th century, possibly later still). He is called Longinus (a fairly simple pun on the word for ‘lance’ or ‘spear’). The character was associated with the centurion in the gospels of Matthew and Mark who says “Truly this man was the son of God” (forever John Wayne in many of our minds, I’m sure!) and Luke has saying “Truly this man was a righteous man”.

The story was concocted that Longinus converted at the cross, and then was hunted to martyrdom by his fellow soldiers. Martyrdom was a key symbol of a person’s authentic Christianity for many centuries (until surprisingly recent, actually).

Later, in around the 12th or 13th century, at the rise in popularity of Grail romances (fictions about the finding of religious artefacts, such as the Holy Grail, which could bestow huge power), Longinus acquired an extra complication to his story. He was said to have been originally blind in one eye. As he pierced Christ’s side, blood from the wound sprayed into his blind eye, instantly curing it. It is this scene shown in the image.

Longinus (as a Saint and Martyr) became fair game for the relic fervour that gripped the church in the medieval period, and bodies of Longinus were found, lost and refound. Tips of his spear (the so called “Holy Lance“) appeared in multiple places (there is still one in the Basilica in Rome). And pieces of the spear shaft were lesser relics sold by canny merchants.

He is still venerated today as a saint (in Catholicism and some Orthodox churches) and has a masked festival on the Philippine island of Marinduque.

Of course, this is all fantasy and invention. But it is striking how Longinus shows in microcosm the fetishes of the church over the millennia: from the concern for Martyrdom, to the rampant capitalism of relics, to the rationalization of saints following the reformation, to his relative obscurity today.

Had anyone heard of him before?

Edit: Added the link to Larkin’s Church Going, one of my all time favourite poems.

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9 Comments

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9 responses to “Longinus – John 19:32-34

  1. Mike aka MonolithTMA

    I’ve actually heard of Longinus before because he was a character in the short lived Heath Ledger TV show called Roar which was set in ancient Ireland. Longinus was immortal, cursed to walk the earth. A friend told me about a series of books that were about him too, though I’m not sure if he was called Longinus in that.

  2. Ian

    Interesting, Mike, thanks. I also found that Longinus was a character in the Evangeline anime series. And he had a magic spear in that.

  3. Fascinating.
    Nothing like the Buddhist myth of a meditator who plucked out his own eyes to avoid their distraction while trying to reach higher states of insight. During a Japanese festival celebrants color in they eyes in the images of this eye-less saint! Maybe you could start a similar festival in Wales. Great fun for kids.

  4. Ian

    @Sabio – laugh out loud moment. My wife was uncomfortable with doing Haloween this year (with my son being 3), so I don’t think I’d get much support on that one.

  5. I assume, being an educated man, you are familiar with Daruma-san (Bodhidarma)! Heck he even meditated so much that his legs fell off. Thus the doll in that wiki article has no legs. I have even seen Daruma-san punching bags in Japan. The punching bag doesn’t have legs, of course, and like Daruma-san, he just keeps coming back for more.

    Hey, are there any famous folks named after “Longinus”? In English, I could imagine the abuse with such a name.

    Please let your wife know that denying a child the horror that only a 3-year-old can feel during Halloween amounts to child abuse, in my book. 😈

  6. When Jesus had to carry the cross, a man stepped out and said hurry and move it. Jesus told him “I go quickly but you will wait until I return”. Some say it is another man known as Longinus( No Proof of name ) that stabbed Jesus with his spear ( Spear of Destiny: has many other names ). Also the Roman guard that beat Jesus as he was chained. Could be any of these.

  7. Jack

    I loved this story so I chose it to be my conformation name (I am 16). After stabbing God’s son, God was able to forgive him to the point where he even healed his eye! If that doesn’t show God’s true love, power and forgiveness, I’m not sure what does. I want to help people in my life no matter what they have done. I hope God will help me to be very forgiving in my life.

  8. Casca Rufio Longinus. The Last Centurion. The One Who Waits. He has several names. My favorite being “The Eternal Mercenary.” The Roman centurion who was tasked with piercing Jesus Christ on Golgotha at the end of his crucifiction and subsequently cursed by Christ to walk the earth until his return.

  9. Chris B

    Longinus regularly appears in medieval Crucifixions, though people don’t know the name applied to him, and there are fewer references to the legendary blindness cure. There’s a Chapel of Longinus (Orthodox?) in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. I’d be interested in other references to his cult; one of the interior figures in Prince Arthur’s chantry chapel in Worcester Cathedral appears to be Longinus (spear, plus garb as a hermit later in the legend, at the time of his martyrdom, presumably). Most of the interior figures haven’t been satisfactorily identified, officially. The chantry dates from 1502-16; Longinus might have been ‘in the news’ then because a Holy Lance relic, taken in the Sack of Constantinople by the Ottoman Empire in 1453, was sent to the Pope in 1492. The Bernini statue in St Peter’s Basilica celebrates this relic.

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