Tuesday, May 14, 2024

The Elevation of the Bodies of Ss Ambrose, Protasius and Gervasius

In 386 A.D., St Ambrose had uncovered the relics of two Milanese martyrs, the brothers Protasius and Gervasius, having been shown the place of their long-forgotten burial in a dream. Nothing is known for certain of these saints, not even the era of their martyrdom, but devotion to them was once very widespread; they are even named in the Roman version of the Litany of the Saints, last among the company of the martyrs. Ambrose brought their relics to a newly built basilica, then called simply “the Basilica of the Martyrs”, and laid them in the place he had originally intended for his own burial; he also attests to the miraculous healings which accompanied the translation, as do his secretary, Paulinus, who would later write his Life, and St Augustine. (All photos from Nicola de’ Grandi.)

The relics of St Ambrose, photographed during a canonical recognition in the late 19th century.
Ambrose himself died on April 4th of the year 397, which was Holy Saturday that year; since that date so frequently occurs in Holy Week or Easter Week, his feast is traditionally kept today, the date of his episcopal ordination. He was laid to rest next to Ss Protasius and Gervasius, and the basilica is now officially named after him. In the mid-ninth century, the abbot of the attached monastery placed the relics of all three saints in a large porphyry sarcophagus, which was later sunk into the floor and covered over; it was rediscovered in 1864 during a major restoration project, and the three bodies are now seen in the Confession of the church under the altar. The feast day of the two martyrs is on June 19th, and the traditional Ambrosian calendar also has the feast of the “Raising up of the Bodies of Ss Ambrose, Protasius and Gervasius” on May 14th. As we reported six years ago, the relics were given a thorough forensic examination in 2018, which confirmed their authenticity.
The body of St Ambrose rests between those of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, dressed in red. The two martyrs also hold palm branches in their hands, while the sainted bishop holds a crook. Several years ago, I visited this church and was told by a senior cleric that St Ambrose’s skeleton was found “all of a piece” in 1867, but that those of the martyrs had been “mixed up, so at the Final Judgement, some of the pieces will be flying back and forth.” This was followed by a smile and the classic Italian “no problem” shrug.
Here is the proper preface for today’s feast in the Ambrosian Missal.
VD: Nos te de sacris exuviis Ambrosii, Protasii, et Gervasii, post tot saecula in lucem restitutis, benedicere et praedicare. Hi sunt enim duo cives nostri fortissimi, ac fidei usque ad sanguinem defensores, qui coronam incorruptam accipientes in caelis, nobis trophaea mortis in membris suis reliquerunt. Ille, qui illustratione superna eorum extitit repertor, nobis fuit Pater et Magister. Hic in medio Ecclesiae os aperuit suum, et tamquam imbres misit eloquia sapientiae suae. Ossa ipsius visitata sunt, et in conspectu populi adhuc loquuntur. Tibi igitur, Deus omnipotens, gratiarum hostiam immolamus, quia dignos nos fecisti sancta haec pignora conspicere, et venerari. Per Christum.

Truly it is worthy and just, right and profitable to salvation that we bless and praise Thee for the sacred remains of Ambrose, Protasius and Gervasius, brought back to light after so many centuries. For the latter two were most mighty fellow-citizens of ours, and defenders of the Faith unto (the shedding of their) blood, who received an uncorrupt crown in the heavens, and in the members of their bodies, left us the signs of victory over death. The former, who discovered them by divine inspiration, was our father and teacher. He opened his mouth in the midst of the Church (Sir. 15, 5), and sent forth the words of his wisdom like the rainfall. His bones are visited (Sir. 49, 18), and in the sight of the people do yet speak. To Thee, therefore, almighty God, we offer this sacrifice of thanks, for Thou hast made us worthy to see and venerate these sacred pledges. Through Christ, our Lord...    
As part of the celebrations for the fifteenth centenary of St Ambrose’s death in 1897, the relics were taken from the basilica to the Duomo in an enormous procession, and exposed there for the veneration of the faithful from May 13-15. In the first photo, we see a huge banner depicted St Ambrose, which was first blessed and used by St Charles on September 8, 1566, the patronal feast day of the Duomo, and has regularly been used in solemn processions ever since. (Three other photos of it are given below.)

Here we see the relics carried under a baldachin; going before them, many of the mitered heads are those of canons, rather than bishops.

In 1974, for the 16th centenary of the Saint’s episcopal ordination, at the conclusion of a local jubilee held in preparation for the Holy Year of 1975, the relics were once again brought to the Duomo. At the time, significant repair works were being done to the church, and it was impossible to display them in the sanctuary; they were therefore placed on a temporary altar in the nave.

The original preparatory design of the “gonfalone - big banner” (16½ x 11½ feet) of St Ambrose, by Filippo Meda.
The banner itself, now kept at the museum of the Castello Sforzesco.
According to one tradition, it was Saint Paul who revealed the location of the bodies of Ss Gervasius and Protasius to St Ambrose, as depicted by Philippe de Champagne (1658, Musée du Louvre).

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