As I continually emphasize here, the stories of the saints we see depicted in icons are often partly fiction, mostly fiction, or even entirely fiction. In the last category we find the saint known as ЛОГИН or ЛОНГИН СОТНИК — Login or Longin Sotnik. Login is the form favored by Old Believers, and Longin by the State Orthodox church in Russia. The title Sotnik — means “Centurion.” In Eastern Orthodoxy he is also titled a muchenik — a martyr.
Here is an “Armoury School” icon of Longin by Fyodor Evtikhievich Zubov (1615 – November 3, 1689), who became director of the Imperial Workshop of Icon Painters in the Kremlin Armoury when Simon Ushakov died in 1686. We can see in it the strong influence of Western European realism that entered Russian icon painting in the latter half of the 17th century:
In Catholic Christianity his name was latinized as Longinus. By hagiographic tradition he was the Roman centurion present at the crucifixion, who pierced the side of Jesus with a lance.
When we look at the original source of this saint, however, we find no name, and no “centurion” title. It is in the Gospel called “of John,” and nowhere else in the New Testament do we find a soldier piercing the side of Jesus with a lance.
Here is the Greek excerpt, from John 19:34. Note the word in bold type, which transliterated is longkhe — generally pronounced “long-khee” in post-classical Greek:
34 ἀλλ’ εἷς τῶν στρατιωτῶν λόγχῃ αὐτοῦ τὴν πλευρὰν ἔνυξεν, καὶ ἐξῆλθεν εὐθὺς ⸃ αἷμα καὶ ὕδωρ.
Here it is in English, with the translation of λόγχῃ/longkhe in bold type:
34 But one of the soldiers with a spear pierced his side, and immediately out came blood and water.
You will note two very obvious things:
First, there is no centurion named Longinus here; the text only says “one of the soldiers” (εἷς τῶν στρατιωτῶν/eis ton stratioton ) pierced the side of Jesus, and that soldier is anonymous.
Second, there is a remarkable similarity between the word λόγχῃ/longkhe –meaning “spear/lance” or “spear tip” — and the Greek name of the saint Λογγίνος/Longinos. Now all we have to do is add an n and the common -os ending for male Greek names to longkhe, and we can easily see how the word meaning “spear” — put together with the story of an anonymous soldier at the Crucifixion — could over time transform into a saint named Longinos.
The story evolved by combining the anonymous soldier of the Gospel attributed to John with the accounts found in Mark and Luke of an unnamed centurion standing at the crucifixion of Jesus, who makes a statement of belief — that Jesus was “the son of God.”
We have seen that in John, the soldier who pierced the side of Jesus was anonymous — and not given the title centurion.
In Mark and Matthew, however, we find no anonymous soldier who pierces the side of Jesus with a lance. But we do find another anonymous fellow mentioned — a centurion.
Here is how he is described in Mark, when Jesus cried out during the crucifixion (Mark 15:19):
“And when the centurion, which stood over against him, saw that he so cried out, and gave up the ghost, he said, Truly this man was the Son of God.
So in Mark, a Roman centurion was present at the crucifixion, and makes a statement of belief about Jesus.
Further, we find in Mark 15:44-45:
44 And Pilate marveled that he should already be dead: and calling to him the centurion, he asked him whether he had been a while dead.45 And when he knew it from the centurion, he gave the body to Joseph.
So not only is there a centurion in Mark present at the crucifixion, but he also is said to have confirmed the death of Jesus to Pilate.
There is also a centurion in the Gospel attributed to Matthew, which expanded and edited the Markan Gospel. Matthew 27:54 tells this:
54 So when the centurion and those with him, who were guarding Jesus, saw the earthquake and the things that had happened, they feared greatly, saying, “Truly this was the Son of God!”
So though Matthew uses Mark’s notion of a centurion at the Crucifixion, he relates only a version of the “Truly this … was the son of God, and has no mention of the report to Pilate.
The idea of a guard set at the tomb of Jesus is found only in Matthew; the other three New Testament gospels say nothing of it:
65 Pilate said to them, “You have a guard; go your way, make it as secure as you know how.”
66 So they went and made the tomb secure, sealing the stone and setting the guard.
The guard at the tomb is mentioned again when in Matthew 28:4 an angel descends from heaven and rolls back the stone that covers the tomb of Jesus:
4 And the guards shook for fear of him, and became like dead men.
And again in Matthew 28:11-15:
11 Now while they were going, behold, some of the guard came into the city and reported to the chief priests all the things that had happened. 12 When they had assembled with the elders and consulted together, they gave a large sum of money to the soldiers, 13 saying, “Tell them, ‘His disciples came at night and stole Him away while we slept.’ 14 And if this comes to the governor’s ears, we will appease him and make you secure.” 15 So they took the money and did as they were instructed; and this saying is commonly reported among the Jews until this day.
Now what happened, apparently, is that the story of the anonymous soldier who pierced the side of Christ in John was combined with the account of a centurion at the crucifixion in Mark and Matthew who makes a statement of belief about Jesus — that he was the “son of God.” And so the anonymous soldier of John became a centurion. Eventually the tale of this centurion develops until he is held to be both the person who pierced the side of Jesus with a lance/spear at the crucifixion, and the person who declared Jesus to be “the son of God” — as well as the centurion who confirms the death of Jesus to Pilate, and the commander who was with the soldiers said in Matthew (and remember that only Matthew mentions a guard there) to have kept watch at the tomb of Jesus, where he witnessed an angel descending from heaven and rolling away the stone from the tomb.
The significant touch was to give this cobbled-together fellow a name. The saint seemingly manufactured from a Greek word first appears under the name Longinus in a line from the “Acts of Pilate” portion of the apocryphal Gospel of Nicodemus.
“… and that he was crucified at the place of a skull and two thieves with him, and that they gave him vinegar to drink with gall, and that Longinus the soldier pierced his side with a spear ….”
So in this Gospel, the anonymous soldier is given the name Longinos/Longinus, but that is all we are told about him.
Then, in the apocryphal Letter of Pilate to Herod, we find this:
“Now when Procla, my wife, heard that Jesus was risen, and had appeared in Galilee, she took with her Longinus the centurion and twelve soldiers, the same that had watched at the sepulchre, and went to greet the face of Christ, as if to a great spectacle, and saw him with his disciples.”
So here we find added to the tale that not only was Longinus was a centurion, but that also he was with the soldiers watching by night at the tomb of Jesus.
There also developed two traditions: one in which the centurion was considered to be evil for his piercing of the side of Jesus, and so is punished by being eaten nightly by a lion and having his body grow back each day until the Second Coming of Jesus — and another in which Longinus the centurion becomes a sincere Christian believer who is eventually martyred for his faith. The “evil Longinus” tradition seems to have died out rather early, and the “Christian martyr Longinus” is the one that survived and became the standard version in Eastern Orthodoxy.
Similarly, there were two traditions in his iconography. A few images of him — generally early — depict him as beardless; but the dominant tradition in Eastern Orthodox art became to show him as bearded. Oddly enough, the first “beardless” tradition better fits the period in which Longinus is said to have lived, because it was then the custom for Roman soldiers to be clean shaven.
In medieval depictions, Longinus is often found in symmetrical “Crucifixion” compositions with him piercing the side of Jesus at one side, and the fellow who offered Jesus the vinegar on a sponge held on a long reed on the other. The latter is sometimes given the name Stephaton.
A story also developed after the tenth century — we find it in the Golden Legend — that Longinus was blind, but when he pierced the side of Jesus, the blood from the body ran down the shaft of the spear — and when it touched his eyes he was cured of his blindness.
Supposedly Longinus was eventually made a martyr by being beheaded — the most common scene in which we find him other than in that of the Crucifixion of Jesus.
He is less commonly depicted alone in icons, as in the image by Zubov.
Those interested in Western European traditions may wish to know that the spear said to have been used by Longinus to pierce the side of Jesus became associated with the tales of King Arthur and the Grail. Supposedly the spear was taken to the isle of Britain by Joseph of Arimathea (who we have previously seen is connected with the Grail). There — according to one version it eventually became the spear used to wound the “Fisher King.” Other competing Christian traditions place the spear of Longinus in other locations.