Christian sainthood often runs in the family, which is the case with St Ambrose (d. 397), the patron saint of Milan, whose two siblings, Marcellina (July 17) and Satyrus (September 17) are also recognized saints.
This week is the feast day for Marcellina, the older sister of Ambrose, who was probably born in Trier, Germany around 330. According to the Vita sanctae Marcellinae, Marcellina died in Milan around 70 years of age when Simplicianus was bishop (reigned 397 – 400/1), and she was originally buried near her brother in the crypt of the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio. In 1722, her relics were rediscovered and eventually translated to a side chapel in the basilica, specially rebuilt as the Chapel of St Marcellina in 1812 according to the neoclassical plans of Luigi Cagnola (d. 1833), who also designed Milan’s Arco della Pace. The 19th century statue depicting Marcellina in prayer is by Camillo Pacetti (d. 1826).
Glimpses of the historic figure of Marcellina appear in the writings of Ambrose. The bishop dedicated a treaty on virginity, De virginibus, to Marcellina, which is considered the first systematic Christian discourse on the topic. During Epiphany in 353, Marcellina, while living in Rome, was consecrated to a life of virtue and chastity and received the ‘veil of virginity’ from Pope Liberius (d. 366). The pope’s sermon from this occasion is preserved in De virginibus.
Upon the unexpected death of their brother, Satyrus (d. 376), Ambrose comments upon the grief of his sister in his funeral homily, De excessu fratris Satyri (On the Death of Satyrus): Marcellina, ‘deprived of comfort, anxious for her own modesty, lately blessed with two brothers, but now wretched because of both of them, being able neither to follow the one in death nor to leave the other in life. . . Our food is mingled with weeping and our drink with tears, for we have been given the bread of tears as food, and tears to drink in large measure, no, even beyond measure’ (1.33).
Contemplating the future death of his sister, who eventually outlived him, the bishop writes: ‘What can ever be pleasant to me without you? Or what satisfaction will it be to remain longer in this life and to linger on the earth where we have lived together with pleasure for so long?’ (De excessu fratris Satyri, 1.34).
Marcellina was also the recipient of three extant letters of Ambrose in which the bishop narrates important events regarding the religious and political life of Milan and the Roman Empire in the fourth century. In Epistula 20, Ambrose describes the events of Holy Week in 386 when the Empress Justina tried to seize two Milanese basilicas for use by the Arians. In Epistula 41, Ambrose provides his response to Emperor Theodosius’ burning of a synagogue at Callinicum by explaining the difference between a church and a synagogue, and in Epistula 22, Ambrose tells Marcellina of an event that would have significant implications for the religious life of Milan – the discovery of the martyred bodies of SS Gervasius and Protasius, who would also become patron saints of the city.
Today, the composer, recipient and two subjects of Epistula 22 – Ambrose, Marcellina, Gervasius and Protasius – are each enshrined in Milan’s Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio.
The cult of Marcellina has never attracted much of a following outside of Milan. However, today, a group called the Sisters of St Marcellina runs the Institute of St Marcellina in Hampstead (London), which was established in 1955 as a residence for young foreign women studying in London.