Along with his theological writings, St Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) adopted a material and spiritual strategy – new church construction and the promotion of the cult of the saints – for combating Arianism (i.e., the view that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was subordinate to God the Father). His main antagonist was the Empress Justina (d. ca. 391).
In short, if Ambrose could produce the right quality of churches, saints and miracles in the name of the pro-Nicene cause, which accepted the Trinitarian doctrine of the Nicene Creed (325), he could effectively neutralize the Arian threat. It literally became a scavenger hunt for the soul(s) of the city of Milan.
Ambrose’s building efforts included the Basilica Apostolorum (now San Nazaro in Brolo), the Basilica Virginum (now San Simpliciano) and his crowning achievement, the Basilica Martyrum, which was eventually renamed in his honor as the Basilica di San’Ambrogio.
At the time, Nabor and Felix, two Roman soldiers from present-day Algeria, who were martyred twenty-five kilometers from Milan, were the city’s patron saints. Yet, as holy as Nabor and Felix were, they did not make the cut for Ambrose’s new basilica. The stakes were simply too high.
Milan – and the pro-Nicene Church – needed its own native martyr. What Ambrose found were twin brothers, SS Gervasius and Protasius, whose martyrdom in Milan is variously dated to the reigns of Nero (54-68), Marcus Aurelius (161-180) and Diocletian (284-305). The traditional date of their death is October 14.
While their historical dates are unclear, on June 7, 386, the bodies of the martyred saints, Gervasius and Protasius, were discovered in the cemetery of the Basilica of Nabor and Felix, providing Ambrose with just the relics that he had been looking for. The translation of the relics and the dedication of the pro-Nicene basilica took place a few days later on June 19, which is still celebrated as Gervasius and Protasius’ feast day by the Roman Catholic Church.
A delighted Ambrose shares the story of the saints’ discovery in a letter to his sister, Marcellina: ‘I found the fitting signs, and on bringing in some people on whom hands were laid, the power of the holy martyrs became so manifest that even whilst I was still silent one was seized and thrown prostrate at the holy burial place. There, we found two men of marvelous stature, such as those of ancient days. All the bones were perfect, and there was much blood’.
In the end, the proof was in the miracles. Saint Augustine, who witnessed these events while he was still in Milan, describes the effects the miracles had in curbing the advance of Arianism: ‘For it was only about a year – not much more – since Justina, the mother of the boy-emperor Valentinian, had persecuted the servant Ambrose on behalf of her heresy, in which she had been seduced by the Arians. The devoted people kept guard in the church, prepared to die with their bishop. . . . Then by a vision God made known to the renowned bishop the spot where the bodies of Gervasius and Protasius, the martyrs, lay, whom God had preserved uncorrupted for so many years in a secret storehouse, in order to produce them at a fit time to check a woman’s fury – a woman indeed, but also a queen! When they were discovered and dug up and brought with due honor to the basilica of Ambrose, as they were borne along the road, many who were troubled by unclean spirits were healed. And there was also a certain man, a well-known citizen of the city, blind many years, who, when he had asked and learned the reason for the people’s tumultuous joy, rushed out and begged his guide to lead him to the place. When he arrived there, he begged to be permitted to touch with his handkerchief the bier of the saints. When he had done this, and put it to his eyes, they were immediately opened. The fame of all this spread abroad; from this God’s glory shone more brightly. And also from this the mind of that angry woman, though not enlarged to the sanity of a full faith, was nevertheless restrained from the fury of persecution’ (Augustine, Confessions, 9.7.15).
A similar account is given by Paulinus the Deacon (fl. 422), who describes the discovery of the relics in his Life of Saint Ambrose: ‘About the same time, the holy martyrs Protasius and Gervasius revealed themselves to the bishop. For they had been placed in the Basilica of Nabor and Felix. The holy martyrs Nabor and Felix were visited very often, while the names as well as the sepulchers of Gervasius and Protasius were unknown, and to such an extent that all walked over their sepulchers who wished to approach the grates by which the sepulchers of the holy martyrs Nabor and Felix were protected from harm. But, when the bodies of the holy martyrs were raised and placed on biers, the diseases of many were shown to have been healed. Even a blind man, Severus by name, who even now piously serves in the same basilica which is called the Ambrosian, into which the bodies of the martyrs were taken, when he touched their garments, received his sight immediately. Likewise, bodies possessed by unclean spirits returned to their homes with the greatest gratitude after they had been healed. And as by these beneficial works of the martyrs the faith of the Catholic Church increased, so did the heresy or the Arians decrease’ (Chapter 5).
In the end, miracles speak louder than theology. Ambrose won the scavenger hunt and the soul of the city of Milan.
The relics of Gervasius and Protasius can still be seen at the Basilica di San’Ambrogio.