Saturday, February 10, 2024

St Soteris, A Martyr of St Ambrose’s Family

In the Ambrosian Rite, today is the feast of a relative of St Ambrose, a woman named Soteris who was martyred at Rome, in the persecution of Diocletian at the beginning of the fourth century. (Ambrose’s family was originally from Rome.) A catalog of Saints incorrectly attributed to St Jerome, but certainly very early, says that she was buried in a catacomb off the via Appia, which was later named from her. In the mid-9th century, Pope Sergius II had her body brought to the Roman church of San Martino ai Monti on the Esquiline Hill.

A stucco relief of St Soteris in the Roman basilica of St Sebastian, by Carlo Fontana, 1705-12. This church is also on the via Appia, near the place of her original burial, which has long been lost. 
Everything we know about her comes from two passages of her famous kinsman’s works, which are brief enough to quote in full. The first is the conclusion of his treatise On Virgins (3, 38-39), addressed to his sister Marcellina. Having previously given examples of holy virgins from other parts of the world, he writes:

“But why do I use examples of foreigners to you, my sister, whom the inspired succession of hereditary chastity has taught by descent from a martyred ancestor? For whence did you learn, who had no one from whom to learn, living in the country, with no virgin companion, instructed by no teacher? You have played the part then not of a disciple, which this cannot be done without teaching, but of an heir of virtue.
For how could it happen that the holy Soteris should not have been the originator of your purpose, who is an ancestor of your race? And she, in an age of persecution, borne to the heights of suffering by the insults of slaves, gave to the executioner even her face, which is usually free from injury amid the tortures of the whole body, and watched, rather than suffered her torments; so brave and patient that when she offered her tender cheeks to punishment, the executioner failed to strike before the martyr yielded under the injuries. She moved not her face, she turned not away her countenance, she uttered not a groan or a tear. Lastly, when she had overcome other kinds of punishment, she found the sword which she desired.”
A wooden sculpture of St Ambrose working in his study (but ready for Pontifical Vespers, as one should be), made ca. 1500 in Palencia, Spain, now at the Metropolitan Museum in New York City. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Postdlf, CC BY-SA 3.0
The second is from his Exhortation to Virginity, chapter 82, in which he contrasts Soteris’ acceptance of being beaten in the face with other consecrated women of his own time, some of whom took too much care for their physical appearance.
“Now the holy Soteris (to bring forth from our own house the example of a holy relative; for we have our priests, our nobility which is to be preferred to (high public offices); we have, I say, the dignities of the faith, which cannot perish) … took no care for her own countenance. And although she had a very beautiful face, and was a noble maiden of the family of our ancestors, she esteemed (the secular honors) of her family much less than the Faith, and when ordered to sacrifice, refused. The terrible persecutor ordered that she be beaten on the palms of her hand, so that she, a tender virgin, might yield to the pain or to the shame.
But when she heard him say this, she uncovered her face, unveiled before the sun, and uncovered unto martyrdom; and willingly met the violence (done to her), offering her face, that the sacrifice of martyrdom might be made in that very place, where there is wont to be proof of chastity. For she rejoiced that by the loss of her beauty, the danger to her integrity was taken away. But although they could indeed scar her countenance with the marks of the wounds (inflicted on her), they still could not in any way disfigure the grace of her valor and her inward beauty.”
Soteris’ unusual name (sometimes also spelled Sotheris) is a feminized form of the Greek word “sōtēr – savior.” An agent noun ending in -tēr would normally be feminized with -teira, but “sōteira” was used as an epithet for several pagan goddesses. It seems likely that Sōtēris, with the common feminine suffix “-is, – idos”, is a deliberate Christian coinage made to honor the Savior while avoiding pagan connotations.

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