Ambrogio, Ambrose, Basilica of Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Decius, Diocletian, Gervasius, Justinian, Lazzaro Morelli, Marcella, Milan, Nero, Protasius, Ravenna, Rome, Silvanus, St Peter's Basilica, Ursicinus, Valeria, Valerian, Vitale, Vitalis
Born alive in Milan. Buried alive in Ravenna.
That’s the short history of San Vitale (Saint Vitalis). A wealthy citizen and soldier of Milan. Married to Valeria, and the father of Milan’s patron saints, Gervasius and Protasius.
His longer history is not much longer, nor of much historical value. Like so many of our early Christian saints, we really don’t know who he was or what he did. Just that he died a martyr’s death, if he lived at all. San Vitale is in a short line of ‘domino saints’, one martyr falling after another.
According to legend, San Vitale witnessed the execution of Saint Ursicinus of Ravenna. San Vitale was on the sidelines, encouraging him to die like a good martyr. Once Ursicinus was dead, Vitale took his body away for burial. In doing so, he caught the attention of the persecuting judge, Paulinus, who consequently ordered Vitale to be tortured and then buried alive. Vitale was thrown into a deep pit and covered with stones.
It was now Valeria’s time to retrieve the dead body, but the Christians of Ravenna refused to give up the relics of their new martyred saint. So Valeria set off for home husband-less and empty-handed. On the way to Milan, she was accosted by a gang of evil villains who ordered her to sacrifice to Silvanus, the god of the forest. Valeria rebuked the idolaters, who swiftly struck her down. She was carried home to Milan, where she died three days later.
As for the twin sons, Gervasius and Protasius, the story goes that after the death of their parents, they gave their possessions to the poor and lived the religious life for ten years until they, too, were martyred. Saint Ambrose later dug them up, enshrined them into his new basilica and made them the patron saints of Milan.
The earliest surviving text recording the martyrdoms of San Vitale and his family is a letter dated to the late fourth or the early fifth century attributed to Saint Ambrose (Pseudo Ambrogio, Letter 2 on the Discovery of Gervasius and Protasius), in which is inserted a report by a certain Phillip, who was a purported witness to the martyrdom of the twin brothers.
It is not certain whether these events took place during the time of Nero (d. 68), during the reigns of Decius or Valerian in the third century, or during the Diocletian persecutions (303 – 305). Proper history only begins with Saint Ambrose’s letter to his sister, Marcella, in which he mentions in few details the discovery of relics which he determined were those of Gervasius and Protasius. Their parents were identified as Vitale and Valeria of Milan, whose feast day is celebrated on April 28.
From the obscurity of the martyrdom of San Vitale has risen one of the most famous churches in Western Christendom. On the tradition location where he was buried alive in Ravenna stands the octagonal-shaped Basilica of San Vitale, consecrated on May 17, 548 and most famous for containing the largest and best preserved Byzantine mosaics outside of Constantinople. All five characters mentioned in the story above — Ursicinus, Vitale, Valeria, Gervasius and Protasius — are commemorated in the church, whose mosaics most famously include an image of Emperor Justinian (d. 565). The same five saints are also depicted across town in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (Ravenna).
San Vitale is also represented on the northern colonnade of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The statue, created by Lazzaro Morelli, is 3.1 meters tall and was created in 1665-67.
Milanese commemoration of the Milanese couple pales with respect to Ravenna and Rome. While the twin sons, buried in the Basilica of San Ambrogio, remain, along with Saint Ambrose, the patron saints of the city, contemporary Milan has forgotten the blessed parents. The ancient church of San Valeria was destroyed in 1786, while the cult of Vitale, which rose in Ravenna, was never established in the city.