Wednesday, June 19, 2024

The Feast of Saints Gervasius and Protasius

The feast of the two Milanese brothers and martyrs Ss Gervasius and Protasius is kept on June 19 in the Ambrosian Rite. It is also one of the oldest and most consistently attested feasts in the Roman Rite; in the Gelasian Sacramentary, it is even kept with a vigil, although this was suppressed in the 9th century. A church was built in their honor in Rome at the very beginning of the 5th century, which is now generally referred to by the name of their father, St Vitalis, to whom it was also dedicated, along with their mother, St Valeria; the two brothers are traditionally named in the Roman Litany of the Saints. (All photos in this article by Nicola de Grandi.)

Ss Gervasius and Protasius in the prayerbook of Arnulf II, archbishop of Milan, 998-1018; MS Egerton 3763, British Library.
Before the Tridentine reform, a letter purportedly by St Ambrose which gives an account of their history was read at Matins of their feast in the Roman Breviary, but this is now recognized to be spurious, and even the date of their martyrdom is not known. However, as we reported in October of 2018, a forensic examination of their relics confirmed several of the traditional details of the story: that they were young, in their mid-20s, definitely brothers, and most likely twins, since they suffered from the same congenital defect of the vertebrae, and have very similar faces. One of them was decapitated, and has signs of injury on the ankle, the other was wounded on the hand with a small weapon of some sort.
The relics of St Ambrose and one of the two brothers.
In the year 386, St Ambrose uncovered their relics after being shown the place of their long-forgotten burial in a dream, and brought them 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 this translation, as do his secretary, Paulinus, who would later write his Life, and St Augustine.

Ambrose himself died on April 4th, 397, which was Holy Saturday that year; since that date so frequently occurs in Holy Week or Easter Week, his feast is traditionally kept on the day of his episcopal ordination. He was laid to rest next to 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 traditional Ambrosian Calendar also has the feast of the “Raising up of the Bodies of Ss Ambrose, Protasius and Gervasius” on May 14th.

As part of the celebrations for the fifteenth centenary of St Ambrose’s death in 1897, the relics of all three Saints 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. Here we see the two martyrs carried under a red baldachin, and behind them, Ambrose under a white one. (It is not unusual in Italy for canons to have the privilege of wearing a miter, and many of the mitred heads are those of canons, rather than bishops.)

Photos of the relics by Nicola.
The 11th-century apsidal mosaic of the basilica of St Ambrose, with Christ in majesty flanked by the Archangels Michael and Gabriel, and the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius. In the medallions below are shown Ss Marcellina and Satyrus, the siblings of St Ambrose, and St Candida, a friend of Marcellina. Episodes from Ambrose’s life are depicted in the squares wth blue backgrounds to either side.

In a letter to Marcellina, Ambrose speaks of an intense pain which he experienced in his right sholder, and difficulty of movement, caused by a fracture of the right clavicle which he suffered in his youth, and which never properly healed. The recent forensic analysis of his remains confirms the presence of this fracture, which also accounts for the notable asymmetry of his face, as seen in this mosaic portrait of him from the early 5th century, in the chapel of St Victor in Ciel d’Oro within the basilica. The Saint’s age of the time of his death is also confirmed, around 60 years old.
To either side are portraits of the two martyrs, in which Protasius is shown as much older than Gervasius; this confirms that within Ambrose’s time, the true history of their lives had been lost, since the examination of the relics confirmed that they were in fact of the same age.
The porphyry sarcophagus in which the relics of the Saints were found.

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