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

fredag 21. august 2015

Sanctity in Milan, part 2 - Nazarius and Celsus

In my previous blogpost I gave a brief account of the legend of the Gervasius and Protasius whose bodies were allegedly discovered by Ambrose of Milan in 386. In this blogpost I want to continue the series of blogposts on Milanese saints by talking about another pair of martyrs found by Ambrose: Nazarius and Celsus.

Nazarius and Celsus with the generic palm of martyrdom
Chambéry - BM - ms. 0004 , f.546, Franciscan breviary, c.1430
Courtesy of
The bodies of Nazarius and Celsus were found by Ambrose in 395, nine years after the discovery of Gervasius and Protasius, but unlike his first discovery, Ambrose does not mention these two saints in his writings. The story of how these saints were found comes down to us from Paulinus who was Ambrose’s biographer and who claims to have been present at the inventio of these two saints. According to Paulinus, a body of a martyr was found in a sepulchre in a garden outside Milan. There was no way of telling when the martyr had been killed, but the head had been cut off and its blood still seeped out of the body which was as intact as if it had been recently prepared for the burial. These signs of a very recent death were taken to mean that the body belonged to a holy man, because although they did not know the date of its death – an important emphasis – Ambrose and Paulinus were certain that this was not a man recently killed. Considering that Christianity had been legal in the Roman Empire for more than eighty years at the time of this discovery, we can understand why a man who bore a hallmark of martyrdom – decapitation – could not have been martyred recently as there had been no persecution in decades in Milan.

After the discovery, the body of the alleged saint was carried to the Basilica of the Apostles, and then Ambrose, Paulinus and a retinue of clerics went back to the garden to pray. There they meet the keepers of the garden who tell them that there is a treasure buried there, and the treasure in question turns out to be another sainted body, that of Saint Celsus. The newly-found body was also taken to the Basilica of the Apostles and there they interred the two martyrs with the due rites. During this ceremony, a person possessed by a demon interrupted Ambrose’s sermon, but the demon turned silent when it was verbally chastised by Ambrose.

The story of the inventio of Nazarius and Celsus is the earliest source we have for the two saints, and although we might cast a sceptical eye towards the circumstances of these finds, the fact that Paulinus was an eyewitness means that we can be certain that two bodies were interred by Ambrose and that they were venerated as saints.

                                       Nazarius and Celsus (with Victor and Innocent)
                        Avignon - BM - ms. 0136, f.257, Roman missal, c.1370, Bologna
                                                   Courtesy of

The story of Nazarius and Celsus, however, developed as a Milanese tradition over the years. At some later point there was composed a legend which purported to give an account of their lives and passio, but this is of no historical value to the actual historical account of these saints, whose historicity is as dubious as that of Gervasius and Protasius. However, the legend is interesting for its own sake, and I will here give a short version based on the story as it is transmitted by Jacobus de Voragine in Legenda Aurea. According to Jacobus, one tradition claims that Ambrose learned about these two saints from an account of the story of Gervasius and Protasius, which in turn was found in a book buried together with the saints. There is also another tradition, Jacobus tells us, that claims that “a certain philosopher who was devoted to Nazarius wrote his passion, and that Ceratius, who buried the saints’ bodies, placed the writing at their head” (Jacobus de Voragine 2012: 405). This latter tradition probably draws on the legend of Gervasius and Protasius, and it is interesting to see how the legends of these to saint-pairs are brought together and become intertwined, almost to the point where the legend make up part of a Milanese mythology. For instance, in his account of Gervasius and Protasius, Jacobus de Voragine refers to the tradition where Nazarius and Celsus are thought to be contemporaries of Gervasius and Protasius. This places Nazarius and Celsus at the time of Nero, for it is established already at Ambrose’s time that Gervasius and Protasius suffered under him. In Legenda Aurea, we are told that Gervasius and Protasius stayed with Nazarius while he was “building an oratory near Embrun” (p. 326). The three men and Celsus who is Nazarius’ apprentice are arrested for being Christian and brought before Nero. The young Celsus was crying and a soldier hit him. This enraged Nazarius who criticised him, and then the soldiers beat the man and threw him in jail, but later when he was thrown into the sea to die he was miraculously rescued and later came to Milan.

In the chapter dedicated to Nazarius and Celsus, Jacobus de Voragine tells us that Nazarius was African by birth, son of a noble Jew and the Roman Christian noblewoman Perpetua “who had been baptized by Saint Peter the Apostle” (p. 405). After evaluating the different religions of his parents, Nazarius chose the faith of his mother and was then baptised by Linus, Peter’s follower and the second pope. Jacobus alerts us to some inconsistencies in the tradition, because the legend calls Linus pope at a time before Peter’s death. This suggests that the temporal setting of this legend is a much, much later addition.

Since Nazarius had become a Christian, his parents feared for his life and sent him out of Rome “with seven mules laden with his possessions” (p. 405). As a good Christian, Nazarius distributed his wealth along his journey. Eventually he came to Milan “where he learned that Saints Gervasius and Protasius were detained in prison. It became known that he was visiting these martyrs and exhorting them to perseverance, and he was denounced to the prefect” (p. 405). When he was confronted with his actions, he stood firm in his faith in Christ and was “beaten with cudgels and driven out of the city”. He then led an itinerant life which brought him to Gaul where he was asked to baptise a young boy called Celsus and to take him with him on his travelling. When the prefect of Gaul was told about this baptism he had the two arrested and tortured, but the prefect’s wife – presumably in imitation of the wife of Pilate – told her husband that these two were innocent and persuaded him to release them. Unlike Pilate, the perfect of Gaul listened to his wife and after their release Nazarius and Celsus went to Trier where he converted many people and built a church. The governor in Trier found out about this and reported the two Christians to Nero, and they were then arrested and sent to Rome.

Nazarius and Celsus walking on the sea
Clermont-Ferrand - BM - ms. 0069, f.486, Roman breviary, c.1482
Courtesy of

While Nazarius and Celsus languished in prison Nero was busy deciding how best to torture his prisoners. Suddenly, a pack of wild beasts which had been captured for the circus burst into his garden and killed and wounded many people. Nero was himself wounded and thought there might be a connection between this and the arrest of Nazarius. Consequently, he had Nazarius and Celsus brought before him, and when the emperor saw a shining lustre on Nazarius face he thought that the saint was a wizard of some sort. Nazarius was then brought to the temple and asked to sacrifice to the idols, and Nazarius asked everyone else to go outside of the temple while he remained there praying. As he prayed the pagan idols crumbled to dust, and Nero ordered him to be taken to the sea and thrown into the water , a topos perhaps most famous from the legend of Saint Clement. Jacobus describes the scene accordingly:

Nazarius and Celsus were therefore put into a ship, carried out to sea and thrown overboard. At once a violent storm broke out around the ship, while a perfect calm surrounded the two saints. The ship’s crew feared for their lives and repented the wrongs they had done the saints; and behold, nazarius and Celsus came walking over the water and boarded the ship. The crew professed the Christian faith, Nazarius prayed, the sea fell calm, and the whole company landed at a place not far from the city of Genoa.
- Jacobus de Voragine, Legenda Aurea, translated by William Granger-Ryan, Princeton University Press, 2012: 406

From Genoa Nazarius made his way to Milan “where he had left Gervasius and Protasius” and when the prefect learned about this he ordered Nazarius to go into exile. Celsus was placed in the custody of a Milanese matron. Nazarius then went to Rome and reunited with his father who had then become a Christian. In Rome he got into trouble with the pagan priests and came once more back to Milan where and Celsus were brought before the judged. They were then taken outside the Porta Romana and brought to a place called Tres Muri where they were beheaded. On the following night they appeared in a dream to Ceratius and adviced him to bury them under his house – a motif probably taken from the story of Gervasius and Protasius.

Jacobus then recounts some of the miracles and quotes Ambrose in his account of the inventio. In his book on Ambrose, F. Homes Dudden claims that Ambrose never referred to these saints in his own writing (Dudden 1935: 319), and it is likely that Jacobus’ quote is from the Pseudo-Ambrosian tradition. This tradition is relatively extensive as many works have been ascribed to Ambrosius which were composed much later. Good examples of this are a letter which describes the inventio of Gervasius and Protasius and a sermon for their dies natalis.

Nazarius and Celsus
Detail from the Averoldi Polyptych by Titian, 1520-22, comissioned by Altobello Averoldi
Courtesy of Wikimedia

The story of Nazarius and Celsus is an interesting legend for many reasons, perhaps especially in the way it is woven into the already established legend of Gervasius and Protasius, and how it thus creates a collegium of Milanese saints. Although these Milanese legends became widely distributed throughout the Middle Ages, it is interesting to note that in the Dialogues of Gregory the Great, which is a compilation of legends of saints mainly from Italy, neither of these four saints are mentioned. Nonetheless, as evidenced by their inclusion in Legenda Aurea and references in several European liturgical documents, their cult remained strong also outside Milan.

Nazarius on a horse
Fresco, 1480, San Nazzaro and Celso Abbey, Novara, Italy, attributed to Giovanni Antonio Merli
Courtesy of Wikimedia


Dudden, F. Homes, The Life and Times of St. Ambrose, Clarendon Press, 1935
Gregory the Great, Dialogues, translated by Odo John Zimmermann, The Catholic University of America Press, 1983

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

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