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A Second Depiction of the Holy Lance of Aethelstan

Discoveries may be made at random times and in unexpected places. In October 2006, I was flicking through some old postcards in a little wicker basket in the St Margaret’s Hospice charity shop in Street, Somerset. Offered for five pence each, some were of early twentieth-century date, but most were more recent. Among the latter, evidently donated from the collection of an enthusiast, were a few of illuminated manuscripts. One in particular caught my eye. For some years I had been intermittently researching the origins of the Grail story, with particular reference to the Lance, which plays a role in certain versions. Here was a miniature of Christ with angels, one of whom bore the Spear of the Passion.

On turning it over, I saw that it had been published by the British Library in 1984, and was from the Benedictional of Aethelwold, Bishop of Winchester, BL Add. MS 49598, a well-known Anglo-Saxon manuscript. I knew that Michael Wood had identified an illustration of the Lance, claimed to be that which pierced the side of Christ, given with other treasure to King Aethelstan by Hugo, Duke of the Franks, in 926, in another Anglo-Saxon manuscript. To my knowledge, no other depiction had been recognised, and subsequent research suggested that this might indeed have been the case. Here in my hand was a second and better picture which could seemingly only represent that same relic.

The Benedictional – a book of blessings to be given by a bishop at Mass – had been made for Aethelwold as Bishop of Winchester at his command and for his personal use by the scribe Godeman, a monk of the Old Minster, probably before the year 972. Aethelwold had been a contemporary of Dunstan at the court of King Aethelstan, and they had been ordained on the same day. He became a monk at Glastonbury under Dunstan’s abbacy, but, desiring a yet more austere life, left to establish his own monastery at Abingdon around 954 in the reign of King Edred. He was Bishop of Winchester from 963 until his death in 984.

Like Dunstan, Aethelwold himself had a reputation for craftsmanship in precious metals, and his benedictional is the most lavish to survive from this period. Of vellum, its surviving 119 folios, measuring 11½ x 8¾ in. (293 x 225 mm.), include 28 full-page miniatures with gorgeous pigment and gilding depicting saints and biblical subjects. That which most concerns us (folio 9 verso) shows the Second Coming, with Christ emerging from a mandorla carrying the Book of Life, with gilded and decorated cover, and a cross-headed staff. ‘King of Kings and Lord of Lords’ is written in gold upon His mantle, and over the thigh, illustrating Rev.19:16. This text occurs as a response in the Office for the third Sunday in Advent which the miniature precedes. Above, amidst the swirling clouds of cosmic colour which surround the mandorla, are eleven angels arrayed like a military escort. Robert Deshman, in his study of the Benedictional, refers to a homiletic tradition comparing Christ’s return to an imperial entrance, the ruler preceded by his vexilum, or standard, and other regalia, and notes that Aethelwold owned a copy of a treatise by Julian of Toledo in which this is included. Three angels carry instruments of the Passion: one struggles with a huge gilded altar cross, which I take to represent a reliquary of the True Cross, while another has the Sponge on a stick. Another bears the Lance, gilded and shown directly above Christ’s elaborate golden nimbus, decorated like metal-work and bearing its own cross, surrounding the head, the hair and beard also gilded, which occupies a central position at the focus of the whole remarkable composition.

This lance is shown with a precision which suggests that the artist had a particular example in mind, and this impression is strengthened by the more stylised depiction of the spears of the sleeping soldiers in the miniature of The Women at the Tomb (f.51v). It is not significantly inconsistent with, but is more carefully drawn than, the Lance as shown in the so-called ‘Aethelstan’ or ‘Galba’ Psalter (BL MS Cotton Galba A xviii f.2v) that Michael Wood identified with that of Aethelstan. This book, traditionally Aethelstan’s personal psalter, is of ninth-century Frankish origin, with various tenth-century additions made to it in England, including a prayer to the Holy Cross and a series of miniatures including a depiction of Christ in Majesty. He sits within a simple mandorla, the upper apex of which, as in the Benedictional, closely embraces the nimbed head. ‘All the choirs of angels’ flank the mandorla in an upper register, with ‘all the choirs of prophets’ in a lower two, with the twelve apostles and the Virgin, prominent directly beneath Christ, in the lowest. The same three relics stand upright behind the throne, the Sponge, with a cross resembling an altar cross, to our right, while the Spear stands alone to our left. In both MSS the Spear has flanges indicated at the base of the blade.
These depictions of the Spear resemble Henry the Fowler’s surviving HolyLance, now in the Hofburg Treasury in Vienna, 20 ins. (50.7 cm.) long, which also has flanges at the base of the blade. This relic is the oldest element in the German Crown Jewels. Liutprand of Cremona, c. 960, tells us it was given in 921 to Rudolf II of Burgundy by Samson, Count of Upper Italy, to induce him to invade Lombardy. It was extorted from Rudolf by Henry the Fowler, King of Germany, around 926, the very time when Athelstan received his gift. It was regarded from the first as a talisman of victory, and already in Liutprand’s description it had a nail, representing those of the Passion, set in the middle of its blade. It is, he says, ‘an invincible weapon against all enemies, visible and invisible, and make perpetual triumph certain.’ It is an ‘inestimable heavenly treasure,’ and ‘that thing whereby God had joined the things of earth to the things of heaven, the corner stone that makes both one.’ A miniature in an early tenth-century north-east Frankish Apocalypse shows Christ as King of Kings, mounted on horseback bearing a shield and this Spear.

The English claimant to the title of Holy Lance is noted by the Anglo-Norman historian William of Malmesbury in ‘The Deeds of the English Kings,’ first written around the year 1124. In the so-called ‘Aethelstan Gift Story’ he tells how the King received an embassy at Abingdon in 926 through which Hugo, duke of the Franks, sought the hand of one of his sisters, Eadhild. Aethelstan was given such presents ‘as might gratify the most boundless avarice’ for a dowry. There were perfumes, jewels, especially emeralds, horses with trappings, a remarkable antique onyx vase, and relics, the vexilum of St. Maurice, a sword, allegedly that of Constantine the Great with his name written in gold letters, and ‘on the pommel, upon thick plates of gold, might be seen fixed an iron nail,’ one of those from the Crucifixion. This feature links the object closely with the German Lance described above. Here also, however, was a ‘Spear of Charles the Great,’ which ‘was reported to be the same’ as that driven into Christ’s side. There was a piece of the True Cross enclosed in crystal, and a small portion of the Crown of Thorns ‘enclosed in a similar manner.’ Some of these objects, William says, remained in the treasury of succeeding kings, but Malmesbury Abbey, where the king was eventually buried, received parts of the Cross and Crown of Thorns. The eventual fate of the rest is unclear. Perhaps items were lost in the Viking wars which were renewed towards the end of the tenth century or at the Norman Conquest. We last hear of ‘part’ of the Lance in Exeter Cathedral in the 1050’s; but the relics were almost certainly at Glastonbury for a time, for, as Abbot Dunstan’s first biographer records, he was custodian of the royal treasure there for King Eadred (946-955). The account is also linked to Glastonbury in that William’s source was probably a lost manuscript concerning the wars of Aethelstan mentioned in the Abbey’s extant twelfth-century library catalogue. I have suggested elsewhere that William’s description, highlighting the Lance and the antique vase, which bore decoration of corn and vines susceptible to eucharistic interpretation, may have provided one literary inspiration in the evolution of the Grail stories. Be that as it may, Aethelwold would have been a teenager, and probably already a courtier, when the treasure made its spectacular arrival in Aethelstan’s roving court. He could have been familiar with the Lance at Glastonbury, and later, almost certainly, also at Winchester under Edgar. Not surprising, therefore, that he allowed it such a significant place in a book in whose production he would most certainly have taken a personal interest.

Deshman notes that the Passion instruments began to appear in both western and eastern artistic contexts during the ninth century. He cites parallels in Byzantine Anastasis imagery, with which he also links the Bristol Cathedral ‘Harrowing of Hell’ relief, which shows Christ with a cross-headed staff, while conceding that these eastern models were ‘of comparatively recent date.’ He also remarks that the motif of angels bearing the Passion instruments ‘occurred first in the Benedictional and then some fifty years later in Byzantine art.’ He regards the Galba Psalter as a model for the Benedictional miniature while remarking with some bemusement that the Psalter ‘does not provide a complete explanation’ for the manner in which the relics are represented. He seems unaware of the ‘Aethelstan Gift Story’ and the presence of actual Passion relics in contemporary England to provide both inspiration and models for both. The apparent depiction of the Cross as an altar cross in both Psalter and Benedictional is interesting here. The so-called ‘Reich Cross’ in the German regalia, a large altar cross 37½ in. (95 cm.) high, was originally a reliquary in the back of which the German Lance was housed in the horizontal while a piece of the True Cross had a niche in the vertical member. This cross dates from c. 1025, but may perhaps have had an older exemplar. The De Antiquitate has curious stories of notable altar crosses at Glastonbury of the Saxon period, one associated with King Edgar which trembled, another which spoke, and a third which bled when hit by an arrow, any of which could have had some past association with the Passion relics.

The order of the miniatures in the Benedictional is significant. That of the Annunciation (f.5v), the first festal picture in the book, does not fall at its own place in the calendar, but prefaces the first Sunday in Advent. The first, Gregorian, blessing for that day refers to the first advent of God’s only-begotten Son, while the second, Gallican blessing, prays the Lord to open the gates of heaven ‘and irrigate our earth, so that it may bring forth spiritual fruit for us.’ The next miniature is of the Second Coming, and the third the Nativity. Thus the Parousia here is placed between Christ’s conception and birth in the flesh. The miniature is also placed to illustrate the familiar Advent theme of the Last Things. It follows the two blessings for the second Sunday in Advent, the first of which asks for help in expiating all sin before the Last Judgement. It may be viewed in the light of Dunstan’s well-known design of himself asking mercy at the feet of the Christ of Judgement, also bearing book and staff, appearing on cloud before, as Douglas Dales has interpreted it, the outline of Glastonbury Tor, on the flyleaf of the so-called Classbook of St. Dunstan in the Bodleian Library.

The Lance is not incidental to the miniature’s overall design. Christ emerges from a ‘mandorla,’ the Italian for ‘almond,’ which describes its shape, (), a figure also known as the vesica pisces, the ‘bladder of (or resembling) a fish.’ This device is drawn by the intersection of two circles symbolising duality: above and below, spirit and matter. It is used in Christian art as a halo which envelopes the whole body of a person. The earliest known examples are said be those which surround Old Testament prophets in fifth-century mosaics in the church of St. Maria Maggiore in Rome. It represents a gateway or transition between two states of being. In the later middle ages in particular, the Virgin and Child may appear as a vision framed by a mandorla, often coloured like a rainbow, with light rays emanating from the central figures, and from the sixth century it commonly surrounds the Transfigured or Risen Christ and is used to represent the ‘gateway’ to heaven at Christ’s Ascension. It is so used here in the Benedictional on folio 64v. The image of the Second Coming mirrors this. The edges of the left side are gilded and picked out with colour as in a rainbow, a feature shared by that of the Ascension. Here, however, the mandorla is tilted downwards and opens somewhat to the right, thus taking on the more solid, fleshy, appearance of a wound, accentuated here by the red streaks radiating outwards, interpreted as ‘rays of divine light,’ which fill the yellow interior. Deshman also relates the enveloping cloud to exegetic imagery of Christ’s sinless flesh, taken from the Virgin, as ‘light,’ i.e. weightless, cloud. Among other sources, he quotes Bede: Christ ‘coming in judgement, overshadows the glory of [His] divinity with the cloud of [His] flesh (nube carnis) so that the impious might see Him whom they pierced.’

At His first Advent, Christ enters the world via the body of the Virgin, which yet remains mystically inviolate. Here, at His second, He re-emerges, as it were, from His Own spear-wound, in a body violated for us, from which water and blood, the blood of salvation, once flowed. The Lance which had opened it is held by the angel, at an appropriate angle, directly above. That this appearance is not accidental is confirmed by the miniature of the Doubting of Thomas (f.56v). Here the risen Christ, with the same golden hair and beard and the same nimbus and cross-headed staff as in the Second Coming, is shown stepping from a mandorla which faces us frontally, with beading inside the edges of the flat, gilded, interior. From slightly below, the doubting apostle’s extended right forefinger is shown indicating and about to enter the spear-wound which, rather than lying horizontally between the ribs, is unusually shown on the right side of the pectoral muscle beneath the arm-pit, vertically, a feature shared with the Galba Psalter (f.21r), where a second Christ in Majesty, by a different hand to that described above, wears the mantle slipped from the right arm and shoulder, showing the wound as a simple slit. Here in the Benedictional, however, it has distinct labia, and itself forms a deep mandorla opening slightly downwards and to our left, the horizontal areola to our right resembling an eye. This frank depiction of the wound may cause some surprise. The tenth century, however, was one in which mystic, to our minds almost magical, symbolism was cultivated by the learned, and the Anglo-Saxon riddles, devised and preserved in the monasteries of the Dunstanian Benedictine reform, quite unselfconsciously mingle piety with earthy imagery.

Interestingly, the symbolism of the vesica pisces and the spear recurs with deliberation in the wrought iron-work of the famous lid of Glastonbury’s Chalice Well or Blood Spring, a thank-offering for peace designed in 1919 by, as it is believed, Fredrick Bligh Bond. At its dedication, he spoke of the vesica as the ‘shape of the “aura” or radiance around the figure of Christ’ in art and of how it ‘is also portrayed as the outline of the wound in the side of Jesus.’ In a Masonic paper read in 1914 he had related the vesica to the ‘Divine Femininity’ and to the ground-plan of the Lady Chapel at Glastonbury Abbey. His well-cover design was doubtless inspired mainly by the carving of a spear, with flanges similar to those discussed here, and an ovoid vessel, from a medieval churchyard cross at Sancreed, Cornwall, which his older cousin, the Rev. Sabine Baring-Gould, illustrated in an essay on the Grail legend published in 1868. The Benedictional of Aethelwold, however, was reproduced in electrotype in a facsimile edition of 1910 which Bond might have consulted in his research on early Glastonbury, and it is not impossible that the striking design here considered also caught his eye.

Subdeacon Paul Ashdown


Blackhouse, J., Turner, D. H., & Webster, L., eds., 1984, The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art, 966-1066, British Museum, London.
Deshman, Robert, 1995, The Benedictional of Aethelwold, Princeton, New Jersey.
Kirchweger, Franz, ed., 2005, Die Heilige Lanze in Wien, Kunsthist. Mus., Vienna.
Mynors, R.A.B., Thomson, R.M., & Winterbottom, M., 1998,
William of Malmesbury: Gesta Regum Anglorum, The History of the English Kings, (ed. & trans., 2 vols.), Oxford Medieval Texts, Oxford.
Prescott, Andrew, 2002, The Benedictional of Æthelwold, A Masterpiece of Anglo-Saxon Art: a Facsimile, introduction by Andrew Prescott, British Library, London.
Temple, Elzbieta, 1976, Anglo-Saxon Manuscripts 900-1066, Harvey Miller, London.
Twining, Lord, 1967, European Regalia, Batsford, London.
Warner, G.F. & Wilson, H.A., 1910, The Benedictional of Aethelwold, Roxburghe Club, London.
Wood, Michael, 1983, The Making of King Athelstan’s Empire in Wormald, P, et al., Ideal and Reality in Frankish & Anglo-Saxon Society: Studies presented to J. M. Wallace-Hadrill, Oxford, pp. 250-272.
Wright, F. A., trans., 1930, The Works of Liudprand of Cremona, London.

See Blackhouse et al.,1984, p. 59 & colour plate VI.

Deshman, 1995, p. 64.

Deshman, p. 63 (followed by Prescott, 2002, p. 11), states that angels also carry the nails, but this is not obvious to me.

Michael Wood, 1983, p. 267-8 and plate IV; Blackhouse et al., pp. 21-4.

In his account in European Regalia (p. 954 ff.), Lord Twining writes of the lance as a former royal symbol among the Lombards and relates that acquired by Rudolf and Henry to the sovereignty of Italy. I owe this reference to Abba Seraphim.

Wright, 1930, p. 160.

Paris BN MS Nouv. Acqu. Lat. 1132, f.29; photo: Kirchweger (a comprehensive and beautifully illustrated monograph on all aspects of the Lance, available in German only), p. 17.

Mynors & Thompson, 1998, text & trans., pp. 218-221; commentary, pp. 123-5. Inexplicably, the English Jesuit historian Herbert Thurston, in an article in The Catholic Encycl. (vol. viii), 1910, says that William’s story of Aethelstan receiving a lance ‘seems to be due to a misconception.’

Wood, pp. 265-6.

Ashdown, 2008, forthcoming.

Deshman, pp. 63-4,

On the Antiquity of the Church of Glaston, originally by William of Malmesbury, but surviving only in a much interpolated version of 1247.

See Prescott, p. 11, and Desham, pp. 67-68, who also links the Harrowing of Hell typologically to the series of advents, and reminds us that those for whom the blessings are intended are currently experiencing Christ’s liturgical advent in the Mass.

Oxford Bod. MS Auctarium F. 4 32; see also Ashdown, 1996.

A word not to be confused with the Sanskrit mandala, ‘circle’ or ‘completion,’ a class of symbolic design used as an aid to meditation in Buddhism and tantric Hinduism. The mandorla in Western art might, however, be considered somewhat analogous to the mandala, and the ‘tantric’ aspects of its use in the Benedictional in particular might repay fuller study.

It surrounds a remarkable depiction of the Trinity in London B.L. Harley 603, f.1, the earliest of three surviving Anglo-Saxon copies of the Utrecht Psalter, of early eleventh-century date. Temple, 1976, pp. 81-2 & plate 210.

Cf. Temple, 1976, p. 49: ’The mandorla, open on one side to enhance Christ’s movement, is a striking modification.’

Deshman, p. 63 (followed by Prescott, p. 11). These rays recur more faintly in the mandorla in the miniature of the Ascension, f.64v. According to Prescott, p. 15, they ‘have  been obscured by rubbing.’

Bede, Exposition of the Apocalypse 2 (on Rev. 14:14); Deshman, pp. 62; 66-67, & references.

Based on an interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy that a virgin should both conceive and give birth. The midwife (Salome), who in apocryphal legend testifies to this fact, appears in our MS in the depiction of the Nativity, f. 15v.

Wood, plate V.

Central Somerset Gazette, 14 November 1919; see also Ball, 2007, pp. 121-3, (revd. in this issue).

Studies in the Christian Cabala, Trans. SRIA Met. Col., 1914, pp. 14-27, at pp. 20-21.

In Curious Myths of the Middle Ages. Bond reproduced it in The Mystery of Glaston, a booklet he published in London in 1938, p. 58.

G.F. Warner & H.A. Wilson, 1910.

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