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Bill Thayer

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Saint Ambrose and Company

[image ALT: A very cluttered metal and glass shrine or sarcophagus, with in front of it a candle, a metal crucifix, a Bible in a copper cover; inside the sarcophagus can be seen, up to a point, the bodies of at least two men in robes and wearing mitres. It is a view of the remains of SS. Ambrose, Gervase and Protase in the church of S. Ambrogio in Milan.]

St. Ambrose and on his left, towards us, probably St. Gervase.
St. Protase is hidden from view on the other side of Ambrose.

The basic story is simple: St. Ambrose (339‑397), bishop of Milan from 374 until his death, found the bodies of SS. Gervase and Protase, the first Christian martyrs (or "proto­martyrs") of the city, on the eve of the dedication of this church. The basilica was consecrated to them for a while, but as the cult of St. Ambrose grew, it was rededicated to him, and in 835 his own body was brought to this crypt under the high altar of what had once been his cathedral church.

It's unfortunately rather difficult to get a good picture of the saints. . . . Still, a mummy is a mummy, three of them is three times as many, and there are very few Romans around in this good shape. (No, they weren't mummified, they just dried out over the years; possibly some hanky-panky has been performed at some time since: tracking down the facts on that is likely to be very difficult.)

As for whether these three bodies are indeed those of the Milanese saints:

Barring an unlikely chain of occurrences, you are certainly seeing the remains of St. Ambrose, who has been the object of an important cult immediately after his death and continuously to our time.

The identity of the two other bodies, however, is much less certain: St. Ambrose thought they were Gervase and Protase — on what grounds is not known — but in fact, little is known of them, their acts are considered by most authorities to be spurious, and thus even their existence is open to question. The most that can be said with strict certainty is that these two men were Romans of the 2c or 3c A.D.

St. Augustine (de Civitate Dei, XXII.8: LatinEnglish), the main source of our information, merely says this:

"The miracle which was wrought at Milan when I was there, and by which a blind man was restored to sight, could come to the knowledge of many; for not only is the city a large one, but also the emperor was there at the time, and the occurrence was witnessed by an immense concourse of people that had gathered to the bodies of the martyrs Protasius and Gervasius, which had long lain concealed and unknown, but were now made known to the bishop Ambrose in a dream, and discovered by him. By virtue of these remains the darkness of that blind man was scattered, and he saw the light of day."

By modern standards, this is an ambiguous testimony: it is quite unclear what Augustine saw, or even what exactly happened. Further details can be read in these two good accounts, each fuller in its own very different way: Catholic Encyclopaedia article "Saints Gervasius and Protasius", and T. Hodgkin, Italy and Her Invaders, I.438‑440.

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Page updated: 5 Feb 20