Thursday, January 30, 2020

Two Ambrosian Saints

On the Ambrosian calendar, today is the feast of a matron called St Savina. She was born in Milan to the noble family of the Valerii in the 260s, and as an adult, married to a patrician from the nearby town of Laus Pompeia, now called Lodi. She was soon left a widow, and dedicated herself to the works of religion and charity, especially on behalf of the victims of the Emperor Diocletian’s persecution of the Christians. In her own house, she secretly buried the martyrs Ss Nabor and Felix, two soldiers of the Theban Legion who were decapitated at Lodi around 300-304. Once the persecution had ceased, in the year 310, she brought their relics to Milan, where they were laid to rest in the chapel of the Valerii. Some years later, after spending her life in vigils and prayers, Savina herself died, and was buried next to the martyrs. In 1798, the relics of all three Saints were translated to the basilica of St Ambrose in Milan; since 1868, they have been kept on the altar of a chapel dedicated to them within the basilica.

A reliquary of St Savina, together with St Bassianus, the first bishop of Lodi.

According to a traditional story, when Savina brought relics of the martyrs to Milan, she hid them in a barrel. While passing through a place between Lodi and Milan, some soldiers who were guarding the city gates asked what was in it, she told them it was full of honey. The guards insisted on checking inside, and when they opened the barrel, did indeed see nothing but honey, and she was allowed to continue on her way. This place, just over ten miles southeast of Milan, is now called Melegnano, from the Latin word for honey, “mel.”

The previous day is the feast of a martyr of the early 11th century called Aquilinus, who was born to a noble family in Würzburg, Bavaria, and ordained a priest after studying in the cathedral school of Cologne. Shortly thereafter, his parents both died, and he returned home to distribute his inheritance to the poor; when he returned to Cologne, the bishop died, and Aquilinus was unanimously elected to replace him by the cathedral chapter, an honor which he refused (like so many saintly bishops) by fleeing, in this case, to Paris. There he was also elected bishop on account of his evident holiness, and so he fled again, this time to northern Italy, and after passing through Pavia, came to Milan to venerate the relics of St Ambrose, to whom he was greatly devoted.

Aquilinus distinguished himself, in one of the more decadent periods of the Church’s life, in his defense of the Catholic Faith against both the Cathars, and some local form of renascent Arianism. In the year 1015 or 1018, he was attacked by heretics while making his way to the basilica of St Ambrose, stabbed in the throat, and his body thrown into a canal. An old tradition has it that a group of workmen who transported merchandise along the Ticino river between Pavia and Milan found the body, and brought it to the nearby basilica of San Lorenzo Maggiore, one of the oldest churches in the city. They were placed in the chapel of St Genesius, which was henceforth named for Aquilinus.


The first attestation of the life of St Aquilinus dates to 1465, when a confraternity named for him was established; his cultus was formally approved by the Holy See in 1469, and his feast appears in the Ambrosian Missal of 1475 on January 29. In 1581, St Charles Borromeo declared him co-patron of the city of Milan, especially to be invoked against the plague. He is traditionally shown dressed as a priest, with a dagger at his throat and the palm of martyrdom in his hand. His remains are now in an urn of silver and rock crystal on top of the altar in which they were formerly buried. Until the 19th century, it was the custom in Milan for movers and transporters to hold a procession in his honor every year on the feast day, in which they would offer candles and a flask of oil for the votive lamp before his relics.


This post is the work of Nicola de’ Grandi, translated by myself.

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