Thursday, July 28, 2022

A Reliquary from the Time of St Ambrose

Today is the feast of a group of four Saints, the martyrs Nazarius and Celsus, who are traditionally said to have died at Milan in the middle of the first century, and Popes Victor I (ca. 189-99) and Innocent I (401-17). On the Ambrosian Calendar, the two martyrs have the day to themselves, and their feast is kept with a vigil; there is also a feast of the translation of Nazarius’ relics on May 10th.

The high altar of the church of the Holy Apostles and St Nazarius, commonly known as “San Nazaro in Brolo”, with the relics of St Nazarius.
In 395 AD, their bodies were discovered by St Ambrose in a garden outside the city; when the tomb of Nazarius was opened, his blood was seen to be as fresh as if he had just been wounded. His relics were then taken to a basilica which Ambrose had constructed about 15 years earlier, and dedicated to the Twelve Apostles; a large apse was added to the church, and the relics laid to rest in a crypt in the middle of it. In 1578, in the course of building a new altar for the church, a silver reliquary contemporary to the original construction of the basilica was discovered under the high altar, with relics of the Apostles Ss Peter and Paul inside it. St Ambrose himself attests that these relics had been given to him by Pope St Damasus I, for the first dedication of the church to the Twelve Apostles; St Charles was rather disappointed to find that they were not relics of their bodies, but relics “by contact”, pieces of cloth that had touched the Apostles’ bones. Nevertheless, he donated one of his own copes to wrap up the relics of St Nazarius, the Apostles, and four of his Sainted predecessors among the archbishops of Milan, who were buried in the church. The reliquary is now displayed in the museum of the Archdiocese of Milan; thanks to Nicola for all of these pictures.

On the lid of the reliquary are shown Christ and the Twelve Apostles. On the lower left are seen the baskets of fragments collected by the Apostles after the multiplication of the loaves and fishes; on the lower right, the six vessels of water turned into wine during the Wedding at Cana. The custom of representing Christ beardless to distinguish Him from the Father was still common in this era, although soon to fade away. The classical style of all five of the panels is very typical of the highest quality artworks of the era, as one would expect from a work commissioned by a man of aristocratic background and high political rank like St Ambrose; this is particularly evident in the pose of the standing figures, which are very reminiscent of the better Roman statues.

Joseph sitting in judgment on his brothers; the young prisoner on the left is Benjamin, the older one on the right is Judah. The hat worn by Joseph and the other brothers, known as a Phrygian cap, was generically associated by the Romans with peoples of the Eastern Mediterranean and beyond, and often adopted by the Christians to represent the characters in the Old Testament.

The Three Children in the Furnace, also wearing the Phrygian cap, and the angel that comes to make the inside of the furnace cool.

The Judgment of Solomon.
The Virgin Mary seated on a throne with the Christ Child in her lap. The servants to either side offer them precious gifts on plates in a manner reminiscent of the ceremonies of the imperial court.
A closer view of the relics of St Nazarius.
The cope given by St Charles to wrap the relics as described above, now itself a relic.
The church of St Celsus, originally constructed in the 4th century, but completely rebuilt in the 11th.
The relics of St Celsus.
The church houses an exceptionally well preserved paleo-Christian sarcophagus made in the first half of the 4th century, perhaps even earlier. On the far left, the Nativity, with the infant Jesus in the stable between an ox and an ass, and the angel over the stable; the Three Magi, all pointing to the star; Christ in the middle with Ss Peter and Paul; the women at the tomb; and St Thomas touching the side of Christ.

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