A spear with a mystical background gives the one wielding it powers to bend the destiny of the world to his or her will. It sounds like a Dungeons and Dragons campaign, but truth is far more bizarre in this case, as the legend of the Spear of Destiny contains a poison pill clause — once the spear leaves the possession of a ruler, the individual dies within a matter of days.
Kings and dictators sought out a legendary spear that pierced the heart of Jesus of Nazareth, deemed the Spear of Destiny, with several different artifacts laying claim to the name over the centuries. Are any of the relics real? Is there any hope that the authentic Spear of Destiny is floating around somewhere?
The top image is of the Vienna Lance, held at the Weltliches Schatzkammer Museum in Vienna, Austria.
The Spear of Destiny (also known as the Holy Lance) is a name given to the spear used by a Roman soldier to pierce the side of Jesus of Nazareth several hours into crucifixion.
Raiders of the Lost Ark centers on Hitler's predilection toward religious artifacts — but his obsession with this particular item isn't fictional. Historical records show that Hitler obtained the Spear of Destiny after annexing Austria in 1938, and brought the spear to St. Katherine's Church in Nuremberg for safe keeping. Stories circle around Hitler's fascination with the Spear of Destiny, which he first viewed as a young, nineteen-year-old painter in the Weltliches Schatzkammer Museum.
Lore connects the spear to several rulers through the centuries, including Charlemagne, Holy Roman Emperor Frederick I Barbarossa, and Alaric, the King of the Visigoths who ransacked of Rome. Charlemagne carried the spear through 47 battles, with legend claiming he died immediately after dropping the relic. Napoleon also sought the spear, but never obtained the relic. The holders of the spear believed it gave them power to control the destiny of the world, but with one fatal caveat – the holder dies soon after the spear leaves their possession.
On April 30, 1945, U.S. Soldiers under the command of General Patton retrieved the artifact Hitler believed to be the Spear of Destiny, with Hitler committing suicide in his bunker soon after; holding true to the legend that loss of the spear leads to death of the owner. The spear seized by General Patton's forces is currently housed by the Weltliches Schatzkammer Museum in Vienna.
Existing spears claiming to be the Spear of Destiny
In addition to the spear retrieved by General Patton, two other lances claim to be the Spear of Destiny. The particular artifact held by Hitler is also known as the Vienna Lance. It is covered in a inscribed sheet of silver and gold, with tradition tying it to the reign of Holy Roman Emperor Otto I in the 10th Century.
Dr. Robert Feather, a metallurgist, examined the spear for a BBC television special. Feather concluded that the Vienna Lance is from the 7th Century AD, making the Vienna Lance a manufactured artifact likely created by the Western Roman Empire for ceremonial use.
A fragment of another lance is held in Saint Peter's Basilica within Vatican City. The first mention of this spear is in 570 AD, when a pilgrim touring holy areas of Jerusalem writes of viewing "(T)he crown of thorns with which Our Lord was crowned and the lance with which He was struck in the side." During the 7th Century AD, the point of this second spear breaks off for an unknown reason. The separated tip is sent to Constantinople and enters the possession of Louis the IX of France in the 13th Century. The point is lost in the late 1700s during the upheaval of the French Revolution.
The body of this spear, currently held in Saint Peter's Basilica, also passed through Constantinople. Turks destroyed Constantinople in the 15th Century, but Bayezid II, Sultan of the Ottoman Empire, sent the lance fragment and a yearly monetary tribute of approximately 4,000 ounces of gold to Pope Innocent II in exchange for indefinitely holding the Sultan's brother and pretender to the Turkish throne, Prince Jem, as a prisoner in Rome.
The point of the spear is never physically reunited with the fragment within Saint Peter's Basilica. The only confirmation of a "proper fit" came when a drawing of the tip (made prior to its loss in the French revolution) received by Pope Benedict XIV is compared to the large fragment held at Saint Peter's Basilica around 1750.
A third spear, the Echmiadzin Lance, is held in Armenia, and often considered in discussions of the Spear of Destiny. This spear, however, is clearly not a weapon, but a manufactured religious artifact, due to its size and the presence of a Greek cross cut into the spear.
None of the spears dates to the proper time period
The earliest spear claimed to be the Spear of Destiny appears in the 7th Century AD, roughly 600 years after the period its perceived use in the 1st Century AD. Dates concerning the Vienna Lance and the spear held at Saint Peter's Basilica are far from concrete – only oral tradition and scant historical records trace their path. The origin of the specific mystical powers imbued by the spear is unknown. I would argue that the claims of power arose of out of boasts made by kings and emperors during coronations and other ceremonies, with the claims growing bolder and bolder over time.
The Catholic Church makes no claims of a connection between the spear held in Saint Peter's Basilica and the death of Jesus of Nazareth, considering the spear as simply a historical artifact.
No concrete evidence exists to catapult any of the exiting spears into the realm of archaeological truth, let alone give it mystical powers. The spear, however, make for an interesting tale featuring power hungry men, multiple artifacts of questionable validity, and the protection of objects presumed to be sacred through the centuries.
Images courtesy of the Museo San Marco, Emanualle Iannone/Museum of Echmiadzin, and the Weltliches Schatzkammer Museum in Vienna, Austria. Sources linked within the article.