St. John the Evangelist, who was present at Christ’s Crucifixion between the two thieves, described what happened to Our Lord’s body after His death:
“Since it was the day of Preparation, in order to prevent the bodies from remaining on the cross on the sabbath (for that sabbath was a high day), the Jews asked Pilate that their legs might be broken, and that they might be taken away. So the soldiers came and broke the legs of the first, and of the other who had been crucified with him; but when they came to Jesus and saw that He was already dead, they did not break His legs.
“But one of the soldiers pierced His side with a spear, and at once there came out blood and water.” (John 19:31-34)
The Gospel account does not give us the name of this Roman soldier; but Christians many centuries ago gave him the name of Longinus. Tradition tells us that Longinus was near-sighted, and when he pierced Our Lord’s side with his spear, his face was splashed by some of the blood and water which flowed out. Suddenly Longinus regained his sight–and in the same instant, grace flooded into his heart and he received the gift of faith in Jesus. Medieval stories of the later life of Longinus (which may be little more than pious fiction) state that he died a martyr for the faith.
Regardless of the historical veracity of the later stories of Longinus, the great Bernini sculpted this magnificent, much-larger-than-life image of the soldier, showing his reaction immediately after piercing Christ’s side. His face bears an expression of amazed joy, as Longinus realizes not only that he can see, but that Jesus is God! He gained his physical and spiritual sight at the same time–and Bernini manages to capture them both in this fabulous work.