Polycarp of Smyrna (c. 69 – 155 AD) was a link with the Apostolic age of the church; he knew the Apostle John, who is said to have consecrated him as a bishop. In AD 107 he had an important meeting, when he welcomed Ignatius of Antioch; the manacled Ignatius was passing through Smyrna on his way to Rome to meet his martyrdom. Eventually Polycarp was to be martyred too; after his body was burned, his followers “took up his bones which are more valuable than refined gold and laid them in a suitable place where, the Lord willing, … we may gather together in gladness and celebrate the anniversary of his martyrdom.” Similarly, when Saint Cyprian was executed at Carthage in AD 258, the faithful brought handkerchiefs and towels to collect his blood. The custom of celebrating Mass at the martyrs’ tombs on the anniversary of their death led before long to the custom of including relics in altars, which was mandated by the Second Council of Nicaea (AD707).
So the veneration of relics of the martyrs goes back to the mid-second century, if not earlier. In this the early Christians were looking to scriptural precedent, recalling the dead man brought back to life by the bones of Elisha (2 Kings 13:21) and the woman suffering from a haemorrhage by Jesus’ cloak (Luke 8:43-48). Many of the Church Fathers addresses the question of the rightness of this veneration. Augustine of Hippo wrote in City of God (I, 13): “Nevertheless the bodies of the dead are not on this account to be despised and left unburied; least of all the bodies of the righteous and faithful, which have been used by the Holy Ghost as His organs and instruments for all good works. For if the dress of a father, or his ring, or anything he wore, be precious to his children, in proportion to the love they bore him, with how much more reason ought we to care for the bodies of those we love, which they wore far more closely and intimately than any clothing?” Saint John Damascene pointed out the difference between worship offered to God alone (latria) and the veneration offered to the saints and their relics (doulia), as Saint Thomas Aquinas was later to do. In the Summa, Aquinas says: ‘Now it is evident that we are bound to hold in veneration the saints of God as being members of Christ, sons and friends of God and our advocates with him. We are equally bound, therefore, memory of them, to accord due honour to any of their relics; and this is primarily true of their bodies, which were the temples and instruments of the Holy Spirit, dwelling and acting within them, and which are to be made like the body of Christ by glorious resurrection. It is for this reason that God himself grants honours to their relics by performing miracles when they are present.’ (Summa Theologiae, 3a, 25, 26). So, in addition to altars, it became customary to house the relics of saints in reliquaries, with the reliquaries of Saint Hilary in Poitiers (1) and Saint Thomas Aquinas in Toulouse (2) as examples.
According to ancient tradition, Gervasius and Protasius were twin young men who were martyred at Milan, most likely in the second century AD under the emperor Marcus Aurelius; traditionally Protasius was beheaded. Their remains were discovered in AD 386, following a dream experienced by Saint Ambrose (c.339-397) the bishop of Milan, at a time when he was about to consecrate the cathedral. Ambrose interred them in the place that he had already chosen for his burial; when Ambrose died eleven years later, he was buried with them. During the 9th c. their relics were moved into a sarcophagus, which subsequently was covered over, until it was discovered in a 19th century restoration of the basilica. Their bodies now lie in a crypt under the high altar of the church, now known as the basilica Sant’Ambroglio. In 2018, the remains of these saints were examined forensically. The bones believed to be those of Saint Ambrose were found to be those of a man about 5’ 6” tall, aged around 60. There was a bad break in the right clavicle, confirming something Ambrose said in a letter to his elder sister Marcellina, when he referred to a severe pain in his right shoulder that he suffered from a fracture of the right clavicle in his youth, which had never healed. The bones believed to be those of Protase and Gervase were those of two tall young men (5’10” was unusual at that time) aged between 23 and 27. They had the same congenital defect of the vertebrae, also very similar faces, indicating consanguinity, possibly twinship. One of the two had been decapitated. Thus is tradition transmitted down the centuries.
Not only did the martyrs Gervase and Protase become patron saints of Milan, but their cultus rapidly spread in Western Europe. Out of some 4334 churches in Normandy, 29 are dedicated in honours of Saints Gervase and Protase; it is believed to have been the original dedication of the cathedral of Sees. Further south, the church of the little village of Civaux (3), between Poitiers and Limoges, is at first sight an early Romanesque structure. However, the church is built on top of a Roman building, and during its 19th century restoration, a 4th c. Roman funerary stele bearing the labarum (Chi-Rho), along with the inscription ‘Aeternalis et Servilla, vivatis in Deo’ was discovered. Parts of the walls of the apse are believed to date from the fourth century. And its dedication? Saints Protase and Gervase.
There is just one mediaeval church in England dedicated to Gervase and Protase. A small village on the outskirts of Norwich is called Little Plumstead. As usual in Norfolk it has a church (4) of mediaeval foundation. Like around 120 Norfolk churches, it has a round tower – very rarely found outside Norfolk and Suffolk – but not as rare as its dedication to Saints Gervase and Protase, attested to by Pre-Reformation wills. When a church was first erected in Little Plumstead, or how it came to be dedicated to the protomartyrs of Turin are questions lost in the mists of time. Had the people responsible visited Turin, or maybe obtained a minor relic of the saints? No one knows, but it is a question worth pondering.
– M. Bagnoli, H. A. Klein, C. G. Mann and J. Robinson, Treasures of Heaven. Saints, Relics and Devotion in Mediaeval Europe, London, British Museum Press, 2011.
– C. Freeman, Holy Bones, Holy Dust, New Haven, Yale U.P., 2011.
– D. Sox, Relics and Shrines, London, Allen and Unwin, 1985.
– J. Bentley, Restless Bones. The Story of Relics, London, Constable, 1985.
– N. Orme, English Church Dedications, Exeter, University of Exeter Press, 1996.
– J. Fournée, Le Culte Populaire des Saints en Normandie, Paris, Société Parisienne d’Histoire et d’Archéologie Normandes, 1973.