Bernini’s Statue of the Man Who Speared Christ

Old St. Peter’s Basilica, the one that was torn down, was full of venerable relics. One of the most treasured was St. Longinus’  Spear.
Longinus was the Roman centurion who pierced Christ’s side with a spear at the Crucifixion.

Longinus spearing Christ

Bernini’s task was to display the great relic in the sanctuary of the New Basilica.
He put the actual Spear fragments in a bronze box inside a niche in the wall.  And below it, in a bigger niche, he stood his marble statue of  St. Longinus.


St. Longinus in Peter'sSt. Longinus

This is the Centurion at the moment of his conversion as he exclaims: “Truly He was the Son of God!”

The statue is gigantic, more than twice life-size; its pedestal alone stands higher than a man.   It was the biggest figure Bernini had ever tackled up to that time (1628—he was thirty years old), and it gave him trouble.  How was it going to look from far across the Basilica?
He made almost two dozen clay models like this one to work out the pose:

bernini longinus2

It needed a big, clear pose and gesture—none of the fine details Bernini was already famous for in his smaller work.   He decided to do something Michelangelo would never have approved of.
Michelangelo had the idea that a sculptor liberated his statue from the block and so he made statues that stayed compact.  He never gave them outstretched limbs.

saint-matthew michelangelo

Michelangelo’s St. Matthew, still half “imprisoned” in the block

Bold Bernini stuck Longinus’ arms completely out in a broad, dramatic gesture.  To do that he had to add on pieces of marble and hide the joints with flaps of the Saint’s armor and his robe.

He experimented with surfaces too and decided not to polish. Instead, he combed over the marble with a claw chisel, which gave it a velvety look, and also reflected the light in a new and pleasing way.

bernini longinus

The Longinus was the first of his experiments with a new purpose for sculpture, a rhetorical purpose. He wanted the viewer of the statue to feel what Longinus felt, not just watch it. He twisted up the Centurion’s robe to intensify the drama and disturb the viewer even more.

Bernini planned four giant statues for each of the four piers that held up the dome.   But he himself sculpted only the Longinus. The Spear and the other relics of the Crucifixion are now kept in the chapel above the statue of St. Helena; and they are displayed each year on the fifth Sunday of Lent.

StVeronica-veil-relic with early  christian columns

Those spiralling columns are not Bernini’s but were saved from the original fourth-century basilica.



This entry was posted in architecture, art, Baroque, Bernini, great artists, Pope Julius II, St. Peter's, Vatican and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Bernini’s Statue of the Man Who Speared Christ

  1. Ken Januski says:

    In spite of saying I didn’t really like some of Bernini’s work, no matter how accomplished, I just can’t help denying his abilities. I suppose it’s like those of us who grew up playing baseball under the solid foundation of ‘Two Hands! Two Hands!’, being impressed by the athletic skills of today’s athletes but still yelling out to them: ‘Two Hands! Two Hands!’ For those unfamiliar with baseball the phrase means: use both hands to catch the ball, not just the one with the glove in it. I flinch every time I see one-handed catches even by very skilled athletes because I don’t understand taking the needless risk.

    With Bernini I see all of the raw talent and imagination. But I think: if only he’d drop the melodrama, drop the almost maniacal need to experiment. This was more apparent in the previous, multi-media example, but it’s still here to a certain extent as Swallows details so well. On the other hand sometimes you just need to let artists be themselves and be happy with the results. Not that we have any choice in the matter! If Bernini was only 30 when he did this it will be interesting to see what he comes up as he ages. I confess that that I don’t really know Bernini well so have no idea just how long he lived or what other work he did. I’m looking forward to finding out.

  2. Rich says:

    Me too I haven’t known much of Bernini’s vast output. Almost
    a Rubens with hammer and chisel.
    So much to learn from this blog!

    And this figure – almost two dozen clay models to work out the final pose, we read here. What an incredible diligence!
    I keep on revisiting and taking a fresh look at the statue. With those outstretched arms, his spear still at hand he looks almost crucified. Spear? Or a lightning bolt? Such a sudden conversion must be a painful process I guess.

  3. Frank Lin says:

    Bernini was the supreme genius that proved Michelangelo was not the end all be all of sculpture…His experimentation led his work to be innovative, and what of the poses? The art had nowhere else to go after Michelangelo but to become more theatrical…If you study comic book art, you’ll come to the realization sculpture and painting served the same purpose.

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