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A mass martyrdom of six-thousand Christian soldiers renders a rather nice harvest of holy relics.
So goes the legend of the famed Theban Legion, who was called up from Egypt by Maximian to assist against the Baguadae in the late third century. The Romans considered the transalpine baddies to be brigands and marauding rogues. The Theban Legion, who had converted en masse to Christianity, considered themselves to be followers of Christ. It would not be a successful campaign. The onward Christian soldiers refused to obey the Emperor, and they paid for it to the last man. Either the Theban Legion recognized the barbarians as fellow Christians and refused to slaughter them, or they refused to worship the cult of the emperor and were exposed as Christians. In any case, Maximian was vexed, and in the Swiss town of Agaunum, now called Saint Maurice-en-Valais, he killed his own soldiers. He began by killing ten percent of the legion, which legend numbers as 6,666 men. The bloodshed continued with repeated decimations until the soldiers were history, and the Martyrs of Agaunum had risen to life. The abundance of the anonymous dead meant that Christian communities could name-their-own-saint, but the cult of Maurice (Morris, Moritz, Maurizio), identified as the legion’s commander, soon emerged as the flag bearer of Christian commemoration regarding the martyrdom of the Theban Legion.
Image above: The martyrdom of St Maurice (Bernardino Luini).
Saint Maurice and the Theban Legion have had a fundamental impact upon the topography of Europe. Over 650 religious foundations in Europe are dedicated to the saint, and fifty-two towns and villages in France alone carry his name. San Maurizio is a patron saint of the Piedmont region of Italy, while in Lombardia, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore is Milan’s contribution to the cause.
San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore is one of the most beautiful churches in Milan. Staffed by volunteers of the Touring Club of Milan, the monastery, now housing the city’s archaeological museum, is free, open all day long and conveniently located between the Duomo and the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio.
The ecclesial setting dates back to at least the Lombard period when it was the seat of the most important Benedictine convent in the city. The Monastero Maggiore itself was built in the sixteenth century. While the Roman ruins of Milan are rather skint, the ecclesiastical complex incidentally conserved the best remaining portion of the city’s imperial walls. The monastic site, snugly located between the ancient Maximillian walls and the city’s Roman-era Hippodrome, incorporated a polygonal tower from the former, and a square tower, used as the church’s bell tower, from the later.
The simple façade of the sixteenth-century monastic church betrays its remarkable interior. The frescoed walls of Monastero Maggiore are Milan’s Renaissance treasure.
Construction of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore began in 1503 under the design of Gian Giacomo Dolcebuono together with Giovanni Antonio Amadeo. The project was finished fifteen years later by Cristoforo Solari. The building is a monumental hall divided in two parts by a large wall. The smaller of the two areas, which one enters from the front entrance, contains the altar and was open to the worshiping public, while the larger hall served as the choir for a strictly cloistered order of nuns who followed mass by means of screened grate in the dividing wall. The monastery was dissolved by Napoleon in 1794.
The extraordinary fresco decorations, painted from the 1510s, transform the sober building into a splendid sanctuary. The most important painter involved was Bernardino Luini, the Lombard Renaissance master influenced by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Luini’s work was continued by his two sons, Aurelio and Giovan Piero Luini, and other artists including Antonio Campi, Callisto Piazza, Ottavio Semino and Simone Peterzano, the mentor of Caravaggio.
See Maria Teresa Fiorio and Sandrina Bandera, Bernardino Luini and Renaissance Painting in Milan: The Frescoes of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore (2000).
Ranked #1 of Milan’s 318 attractions by Tripadvisor, see reviews and photos of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore.
The earliest surviving document regarding the Theban Legion comes from Eucherius, Bishop of Lyon (d. 450). According to Eucherius, the relics of the Martyrs of Agaunum were discovered and identified by Theodore, or Theodulus, (d. 391) the first historically-identified Bishop of Octudurum (now Martigny), who attended the Council of Aquileia in 381. He built a basilica in their honor, which became the early center of the cult of Maurice. In 515, the basilica became a part of an abbey under the patronage of King Sigismund of Burgundy (d. 524). Today, the monastery, St. Maurice’s Abbey (Abbaye de Saint-Maurice d’Agaune or Saint-Maurice-en-Valais), is a national heritage site of Switzerland.
Given the number of martyrs, Eucherius considered Aguanum to be the sacred site par excellence. In 450 CE, he wrote: ‘We often hear, do we not, a particular locality or city is held in high honour because of one single martyr who died there, and quite rightly, because in each case the saint gave his precious soul to the most high God. How much more should this sacred place, Aguanum, be reverenced, where so many thousands of martyrs have been slain, with the sword, for the sake of Christ!’ (Eucherius, Letter to Bishop Salvius).
Gregory of Tours weighed in later in the sixth century, but he locates the cult in Cologne: ‘At Cologne there is a church in which the fifty men from the holy Theban Legion are said to have consummated their martyrdom for the name of Christ. And because the church, with its wonderful construction and mosaics, shines as if somehow gilded, the inhabitants prefer to call it the Church of the Golden Saints’ (Glory of the Martyrs, 85).
The tale of the Theban Legion is included in Jacobus da Voragine’s thirteenth century, Golden Legend (Legenda aurea or Legenda sanctorum) and is detailed in the early Protestant, Book of Martyrs, by John Foxe.
Scholars differ on the historicity of the account, but the cult of St Maurice and its impact upon the religious imagination of Europe is a given fact. Maurice is traditionally depicted in full armor and emblazoned with a red cross.
As the patron saint of soldiers, Maurice was the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire, whose emperors were anointed before the Altar of Saint Maurice in Rome’s St Peter’s Basilica. More recently, on July 19, 1941, Pope Pius XII declared Saint Maurice to be patron saint of Italy’s Alpini Mountain Infantry Corps.
Saint Maurice is connected with the Spear of Destiny, or the Holy Lance of Vienna, one of several relics claiming to be the spear that Longinus used to pierce the side of Jesus. The lance, which Maurice supposedly carried into battle, bears an engraving of his name and is currently housed in the Schatzkammer, or Imperial Treasury, of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. According to tradition, the relic along with Maurice’s spurs came into the possession of the Holy Roman Emperors in the tenth century. These relics were used in the coronations of Austro-Hungarian Emperors until 1916.
St Maurice was also the patron saint of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, a medieval military order of unmarried merchants based in present-day Estonia and Latvia. Depicted as a black Moor, the head of Maurice appears on the Brotherhood’s coat of arms.
The Magdeburg Cathedral and the Abbey of St Maurice (Abbaye de Saint-Maurice d’Agaune or Saint-Maurice-en-Valais) in Switzerland are the saints’ two major shrines.
The feast day of St Maurice and the Theban Legion is September 22.