And was the holy Lamb of God,
On Englands pleasant pastures seen!
- And did those feet, William Blake

onsdag 19. august 2015

Sanctity in Milan, part 1 - Gervasius and Protasius


In September, the Centre at which I’m working, the Centre of Medieval Literature in Odense and York is going on a work trip to Milan. In preparation for this, I’m familiarising myself with the cult of saints in the city, and in what I hope to be a long series of blogposts I will delve into the subject. First up are the protomartyrs of the city, Gervasius and Protasius.

Gervasius and Protasius
MS Egerton 3763, Prayerbook of Archbishop Arnulph of Milan, between 998 and 1018
Courtesy of British Library

Gervasius and Protasius first emerge into recorded history in 386 when their beheaded bodies were found by Ambrose, bishop of Milan. Nothing is known about their history, and their historicity remains a dubious matter. According to the legend, they showed themselves to Ambrose while he was praying in the Church of Felix and Nabor, which was raised over the relics of two martyrs from the Diocletian persecution of the early fourth century. In Legenda Aurea, Jacobus de Voragine records the event as follows:

Ambrose was at prayer in the church of Saints Nabor and Felix, and was neither wide awake nor sound asleep when two handsome youths, dressed in white tunics and mantles and shod with short boots, appeared to him and prayed with him. Ambrose prayed that if this apparition was an illusion it would not occur again, but if it was a true one it would be repeated. At cockcrow the two youths again appeared in the same way, praying with him; but on the third night, fully awake though his body was worn out with vigils, he was astonished when they appeared to him with a third person, who looked like Paul the apostle in the painting Ambrose had seen.
- Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea (translated by William Granger-Ryan), 2012: 327

Ambrose inspired by Saint Paul
Paris - Bibl. Mazarine - ms. 0562, f.001, collection of Ambrosian writings, 16th century
Courtesy of

Paul, for indeed it is him, then goes on to explain to Ambrose who these men are and where he can find their bodies, namely in a coffin twelve feet under the earth. In this coffin, Ambrose would also find a book containing the history of these martyrs. After discussing the matter with some other local bishops, Ambrose decided to dig for the relics and indeed found them where Saint Paul had said they would be, a feat which earned him the patronage of archaeologists (shared with Damasus and, I believe at least in Spain, with Helena).

The legend of Gervasius and Protasius tells us that the saints were the twin sons of Saint Vitalis and his wife Valeria. Since they were children of Christians, and since they lodged with Saint Nazarius, they were soon persecuted by the pagan authorities and brought before Nero. The twins were then later taken to Milan, and here they received the enmity of the pagan priests.

At the time when Gervasius and Protasius came to Milan, a military leader called Count Astasius also came there on his campaign against the Germanic tribe of the Marcomanni. Astasius was then told that the gods would be deaf to his prayers unless he forced Gervasius and Protasius to offer sacrifice to them, and Astasius had the twins brought forth to perform the rites. True to the topos of such saint-stories, the two men refused to offer sacrifice and blasphemed the pagan idols as being deaf and dumb. Gervasius then said that Astasius would only receive victory from God and the count responded by having him beaten with leaded whips until he died. Then Protasius was summoned, and he mocked the count for all the fuss he made about the two Christians. For this, Astasius had him hung on the rack but Protasius kept mocking him and was eventually beheaded. The bodies of the twins were then collected by a Christian called Philip, who buried the stone coffin secretly in his house and who wrote the book which he placed at their relics.

Gervasius and Protasius with the instruments of their passion
Mans (Le) - BM - ms. 0254, f.044v, Missal, Use of Le Means, between 1495 and 1503
Courtesy of

The relics of the two martyrs were placed in the Church of Felix and Nabor by Ambrose, and these two saints became the centre of the Milanese cult of saints. The cult of Gervasius and Protasius is fascinating, particularly because of its inception. Ambrose lived in a time when Milan had been an important imperial city since the third century, and when the imperial power was weakening and local episcopal power was on the rise. It was also a time when aristocratic Christians, especially Christian matrons, expanded their own prestige by collecting relics of saints and constructing private mausoleums in their gardens. These features were common to the Western Roman Empire, and we see them also in the papacy of Damasus I (366-84). It is therefore possible that Ambrose either invented the legend of Gervasius and Protasius or exploited a local oral tradition in his establishment of their cult. For example, it is interesting to note that the martyrdom of these saints are set two the first Christian persecution, i.e. about 250 years earlier than the deaths of Felix and Nabor who were then replaced by a new – but older – saintly couple. Thus, Gervasius and Protasius not only become protomartyrs of Milan, but provide the bishop with saints of greater antiquity and prestige than the saints hitherto venerated in Milan by its local nobility.
Gervasius and Protasius with the palms of martyrdom
Chambéry - BM - ms. 0004, f.502, Franciscan breviary, c.1430
Courtesy of


Brown, Peter, The Cult of the Saints, University of Chicaco Press, 2015

Farmer, David, The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, 2004

Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger-Ryan, Princeton, 2012

Sághy, Marianne, "Pope Damasus and the Beginnings of Roman Hagiography", printed in Gecser, Ottó; Laszlovszky, Józef; Nagy, Balázs; Sebók, Marcell; Szende, Katalin (eds.), Promoting the Saints – cults and their contexts from Late Antiquity until the Early Modern Period, Central European University Press, 2011

1 kommentar:

  1. Good blog... keep-up the good work....May I share an article about Castello Sforzesco in Milan in the Castello Sforzesco in Milan in youtube