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Bill Thayer

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Portraiture in Mosaic:
Saint Ambrose and Company

[image ALT: Photograph taken from about one storey below: a small window with on either side a mosaic of a rather austere-looking stiffly represented robed saint, inscribed 'PROTASIVS' and 'AMBROSIVS'.]

St. Ambrose and on his right St. Protase.

On the day of my visit, the conditions were not the best for photography; are they ever? The main problem is the Sacello itself: an exiguous square space smaller than the average American bedroom, with the mosaics high off the floor. To make things worse, although excellent lighting has been provided, the Sacello is closed off by a grill, which was locked that day. All my pictures were thus basically taken at odd angles thru a fence.

Finally, my camera was not the best either. Although since replaced, that does these photos no good.

[image ALT: Mosaic detail showing the head of a somewhat Asiatic-looking man of about 40 with a mustache and a trim beard.]

The object in Ambrose's hand is (I think) his own church:
the building housing this portrait of him.

[image ALT: Mosaic: an old man with white hair and a white beard, dressed in a toga.]
[image ALT: Mosaic: a young man with dark hair, dressed in a toga too, but clean-shaven.]

St. Protase on the left, St. Gervase on the right. This is good mosaic, and good late Roman portraiture. But are these actual portraits? Almost certainly not.

According to Clemens Jöckle, this is the first example of an inventio or find of martyrs' bodies. The event was attested at any rate by both Paulinus of Nola and Augustine: Ambrose found them on June 17, 386 the eve of the dedication of this church, and would eventually himself choose to be buried with them.

Quoting The Oxford Dictionary of Saints, "No historical details are known of the lives of these saints: in Milan there were only vague memories of their existence . . . J. Rendel Harris asserted that Gervase and Protase were identical with Castor and Pollux, but most hagiographers regard them as genuine martyrs, possibly of the 2c, whose memorials had been lost." Indeed, their iconography is very varied, with a slight tendency to depict them as soldiers.

Gervase and Protase are sometimes said to have been twins. I find this not plausible, for two reasons. You've just seen one of them: in this the oldest representation of them, the men are represented, presumably at the time of their deaths, as being of different ages. The other reason is that Gervase was whipped to death with "lead weights tied to rods" (Jöckle again and in poor English translation, I think we can safely see the Roman flagrum here), whereas Protase was beheaded: this confirms the age difference, the younger man being flagellated but the older man executed with some respect for his white hair.

By the way, Ambrose found the bones in the neighboring basilica of SS. Nabor and Felix. This just pushes the question back: who were Nabor and Felix?

For the primary sources, see of course the Acta Sanctorum: Iun III (1701).

[image ALT: Mosaic: an old man with white hair and a white beard.]

St. Nabor or Navor: another conventional "portrait".

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Page updated: 3 May 01