Few relics have been more precious in the Christian imagination than the blood of Christ. A small, elite group of religious sites in Western Europe claims possession of the relic, including the city of Mantova, a direct two-hour train ride from Milan. The Blood of Mantova, contained in a set of sacred vessels, rests in the crypt of the Basilica di Sant’Andrea. The present-day veneration of the relic includes an annual Good Friday procession through the city’s streets.

The earliest source for the Blood of Mantova appears in the Annales Regni Francorum for the year 804, which states that Pope Leo III went to Mantova at the request of Charlemagne to verify rumors of the newly-discovered relic. In 924, due to the Hungarian invasion of Italy, the relic was hidden and subsequently lost until it was rediscovered again in 1048.

Two saints are central to the Mantova legend. The first is Longinus, the name traditionally given to the Roman soldier who pierced the side of the crucified Jesus (John 19:34) and proclaimed him to be the Son of God (Mark 15:39). According to the story, Longinus, whose name is derived from the Latin longus (‘long’) in reference to his spear, gathered a portion of blood-soaked earth at the foot of the cross. Despite a more recognized tradition that locates Longinus’ death in Cappadocia, the Mantova version depicts him as a native-born Italian, who, joining the nascent Christian movement, moved to Mantova where he was soon martyred. He is recognized as a saint in the Roman Catholic (March 15) and Eastern Orthodox (October 16) churches.

The second saint involved in the legend is St Andrew, the disciple of Jesus and brother of St Peter. According to the Mantova legend, St Andrew appeared in the dreams of two different devotees, revealing the location of the Holy Blood in both the ninth and the eleventh centuries. 

The basilica in Mantova (La Basilica di Sant’Andrea), which houses the relic in a crypt below the central nave, is dedicated to St Andrew. The church, built over a former Franciscan foundation in order to accommodate the growing pilgrim crowds, was founded in 1462 just one year after the head of St Andrew was given to Pope Pius II by the Byzantine despot Thomas Palaeologus. The apostolic relic has been enshrined in one of the four central pillars of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Soon after the eleventh-century rediscovery of the Holy Blood, Pope Leo IX (1053) and Emperor Henry III (1055) came to Mantova to adore the relic, which was subsequently divided into three parts. One portion remained in Mantova, while the pope and the emperor took their shares respectively to Rome and Germany. The emperor’s portion was eventually given to the Weingarten Abbey, which still acknowledges the Italian provenance of its sacred relic. To this day, the Holy Blood of Weingarten is solemnly carried in a grand equestrian procession on the Friday after Ascension Day, locally known as Blutfreitag. Some 3,000 riders and 30,000 pilgrims are expected to participate in this years’ event, which will take place on May 18.

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Spoils from either the Second Crusade (1147 – 1149) or the Sack of Constantinople (1204) are the likely source of another Holy Blood relic that is venerated in the Basilica of the Holy Blood (Heilige Bloed Basiliek) in Bruges, Belgium. According to the Bruges tradition, the blood of Jesus was preserved by Joseph of Arimathea (Mark 15:43-46, Luke 23:50-56, John 19:38-42), who washed the body of Christ before its entombment.

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Other locations besides Mantova claim the bodily relics of Longinus, and there is a prominent statute of Longinus in St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Yet, it is the spear of Longinus that has attracted the most attention. Sources beginning in the sixth century indicate that the spear was on display in Jerusalem, although after the Persian Conquest of Jerusalem in 614, the history of the spear becomes fragmented. Sources locate the spear in both Jerusalem and Constantinople and eventually in Armenia, Paris and Rome. Of prominence, however, is the the Vienna spear (left) housed in the Hofburg Imperial Palace.

The possession of Christian relics has long legitimized the consolidation of power, a practice enjoyed by both Constantine the Great and Charlemagne. Equally so, Hitler’s fascination with the spear of Longinus, also referred to as the Spear of Destiny, is well-documented. Today, the Spear of Destiny remains the subject of books and video games and is the namesake of a British rock band formed in 1982.

With help from Susanna Menescardi

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