Tuesday, June 18, 2019

"We found two men of stupendous size" ~ The discovery of the relics of Saints Gervasius and Protasius by Ambrose of Milan

Detail from Phillipe de Champaigne's painting entitled: The Discovery of
the Relics of Saints Gervasius and Protasius
June 19 is the feast of the ancient martyrs Gervasius and Protasius. Though nearly forgotten today, these twin brothers were well known in both the early Church and throughout the Middle Ages. To this day, their names may be found in the Litany of the Saints among those of better remembered early martyrs.

Very little is known for sure about the lives and martyrdoms of Gervasius and Protasius, only that they perished before the lifetime of Saint Ambrose in the late 4th century AD. A very brief account of their martyrdom is given in a letter purported to be written by Saint Ambrose. Though of ancient provenance, this letter is believed by most scholars to be a fabrication written by a hand other than Ambrose's somewhat after his time. But it is interesting nonetheless as it contains the text of a libellus (or booklet) that was supposedly found along with the relics of Gervasius and Protasius when they were discovered in late 4th century Milan. The text of this libellus runs as follows:
I the servant of Christ, Philippus, with my son, stole and buried in my house the bodies of the saints: their mother was called Valeria and their father Vitalis; they begot them as twins in a single birth, and called one Protasius, the other Gervasius.
Vitalis, a soldier, was martyred for the crime of being a Christian. His wife, Valeria, was later beaten to death on the same charge while on her way back to Milan. Upon her death, Gervasius and Protasius are left as orphans. The libellus continues:
Gervasius and Protasius sell the house and all the possessions inherited from their parents, giving the money to the poor. They retire for ten years, reading, praying and fasting, then they are martyred.
The count Astasius comes by Milan as he is going to fight the Marcomanni. Pagans ask him to compel Gervasius and Protasius to sacrifice. He orders them to be arrested and brought to him, and tries to convince them to sacrifice, but Gervasius speaks against worshipping idols. Astasius orders him to be scourged until he dies.
Similarly Protasius refuses to sacrifice, fearing no punishment. Astasius orders him to be beaten and again tries to convince him. Protasius tells him that he hopes that he will be forgiven, as Christ wished forgiveness on those who crucified him, and that he is ready for martyrdom. Astasius orders him to be beheaded.
After that, I, the servant of Christ, Philippus, with my son, took away the holy bodies secretly at night and buried them in my house and in this marble sarcophagus, with God alone as a witness, trusting through their prayers to obtain the mercy of the Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit for ever and ever, Amen.' [Taken from The Cult of the Saints in Late Antiquity database]
It is not clear when the martyrdom of these two saints occurred, with some scholars saying during the reign of Nero, others the reign of Marcus Aurelius, and others during the Great Persecution of Diocletian. The connection of Saint Ambrose with these two saints runs deep for it was he who discovered their remains. In the Life of Saint Ambrose written by his secretary, Paulinus, in the early 5th century AD, we find the following passage relating to the discovery:
Click here for info.
At this same time, the holy martyrs Protase and Gervase revealed themselves to the Bishop [that is, Ambrose]. For they had been placed in the basilica in which today are the bodies of the martyrs Nabor and Felix. And the holy martyrs Nabor and Felix were visited very frequently, but just as the names of the holy martyrs Gervase and Protase were unknown, so also were their burial places, so much so that all walked over their graves who wished to come to the grates by which the sepulchers of the holy martyrs Nabor and Felix were protected from injury.
But when the bodies of the holy martyrs were taken out and placed on biers, thereupon the diseases of many were shown to have been cured. Even a blind man, Severus by name, who to the present day devoutly serves in that same basilica which is called Ambrosian and into which the bodies of the martyrs were carried, as soon as he touched the clothing of the martyrs, immediately received his sight. Bodies also possessed by unclean spirits were cured and returned home with the greatest gratitude. And as the faith of the Catholic Church increased by these blessings effected by the martyrs, so did the heresy of the Arians diminish. [Paulinus, Life of Saint Ambrose, Chapter 5]
Amazingly, this passage is corroborated by Saint Ambrose himself in an extant letter to his sister, Saint Marcellina. Here is the relevant passage:
As I am wont to keep your holiness informed of all that goes on here in your absence, I would have you know that we have found the bodies of some holy martyrs. After the consecration of a Church, many began to interrupt me crying with one voice; “Consecrate this as you did the Roman Basilica.” 

“I will do so,” I replied, “if I find any relics of Martyrs,” and immediately my heart burned within me as if prophetically.

In short the Lord lent us aid, though even the very clergy were alarmed. I caused the ground to be opened before the rails of the Church of Saints Felix and Nabor. I found the suitable tokens; and when some persons were brought for us to lay our hands upon, the power of the holy martyrs became so manifest that before I began to speak, one of them, a woman, was seized by an evil spirit and thrown down upon the ground in the place where the martyrs lay.

We found two men of stupendous size, such as belonged to ancient days. All their bones were entire, and there was much blood. The people flocked thither in crowds throughout the whole of those two days. We arranged all the bones in order, and carried them when evening set in, to the Basilica of Fausta; where we kept vigils throughout the night, and some possessed persons received imposition of hands. The following day we transferred them to the Basilica which they call Ambrosian.

During their transportation a blind man was healed. [Taken from: Saint Ambrose to Saint Marcellina, Letter XXII]
This took place in AD 386. Perhaps even more amazingly, this event is also corroborated by Saint Augustine who was present in Milan at the time, a year before his baptism in AD 387. Writing in his City of God, Augustine says:
The miracle which was wrought at Milan when I was there, and by which a blind man was restored to sight, could come to the knowledge of many; for not only is the city a large one, but also the emperor was there at the time, and the occurrence was witnessed by an immense concourse of people that had gathered to the bodies of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, which had long lain concealed and unknown, but were now made known to the bishop Ambrose in a dream, and discovered by him. By virtue of these remains the darkness of that blind man was scattered, and he saw the light of day. [Augustine, City of God, Book XXII, Chapter 9]
The relics of Saint Ambrose (in white) with Saint Gervasius and Protasius (in red).
[By BáthoryPéter 13:53, 5 October 2008 (UTC) - Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0]
Saints Gervasius and Protasius became popular intercessors for the next thousand plus years with numerous shrines erected to their honor. Their remains may be seen in Milan to this day, along with those of Saint Ambrose himself, at the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan.

Also in this basilica are 9th century mosaics of saints Ambrose, Gervasius, Protasius, Ambrose's sister Marcellina, Ambrose’s brother Satyrus, and Candida, who is likely the long-time friend of Marcellina mentioned in Paulinus’s Life of Saint Ambrose.

Mosaic from the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio in Milan showing Christ flanked
by Saints Gervasius (right) and Protasius (Left). Below in the medallions are
Saint Candida (right), Saint Satyrus (center) and Saint Marcellina (left).
Click to enlarge.

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