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