July 12th is traditionally the feast day of two early martyrs of the church of Milan, Ss Nabor and Felix, who have long occupied a prominent place in the Ambrosian Rite. Together with their fellow soldier St Victor, they are named in the Communicantes of the Ambrosian Canon, and their Mass has some interesting propers. In the Roman Rite, they have been kept as a commemoration on the feast of St John Gualbert since the early 17th century. But well before that, in both the pre-Tridentine editions of the Roman liturgical books, and the edition of St Pius V, their feast was kept at the lowest rank, and had no proper hagiographical lesson in the breviary, a sure sign that the traditional account of their lives was considered historically unreliable.
The hymn for Vespers of their feast, which was composed by St Ambrose himself, refers to them as “Mauri genus – Moors by birth”, since they were from the Roman province of Mauretania. (The modern nation of Mauritania in western Africa was named by the French during the 19th century colonial period after the Roman province, but includes none of the same territory.) It is also sung on the feast of St Victor on May 8th, since he was also a Moor, and martyred in the same persecution; they may have all belonged to a Berber tribe known as the Gaetuli, a great many of whom served in the Roman armies in the 3rd and 4th centuries. A later tradition associates all three of them with the Theban Legion, partly because they were in Milan in service to the Emperor Maximian, who made his headquarters in that city, and was the persecutor of that legion.
Their 5th century acts recount that they refused to sacrifice to the gods worshipped by the Empire and the army, and were therefore beheaded at the city of Laus Pompeia (now called Lodi Vecchio). A noblewoman named Savina, a native of Milan married to a patrician of Laus Pompeia, is said to have comforted them in prison, and then to have secretly buried them in her own house after their execution. Once the persecution had ceased, in the year 310, she brought their relics to Milan, where they were laid to rest in the chapel of her family, the Valerii; this chapel then came to be known as the Basilica Naboriana.
Within the basilica of St Ambrose in Milan, the chapel known as “San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro – St Victor in the heaven of gold” contains a mosaic portrait of the bishop of Milan at the time of this translation, St Maternus, with the martyrs to either side of him. On the opposite wall are St Ambrose with Ss Gervasius and Protasius, underlining the parallels between the two bishops in their devotion to the martyrs. And in point of fact, the place where St Ambrose discovered the relics of Gervasius and Protasius was very close to the Basilica Naboriana.
By 1249, the ancient church was in very poor condition, and it was decided to entrust it to the then very new order of the Franciscans, recently arrived in Milan. A much larger church was built to replace it, which was long known as San Francesco Grande. Devotion to the martyrs was renewed to such an extent that in 1396, their feast was declared a public holiday in Milan. In 1472, the relics were moved to be closer to the high altar; the skulls of the two martyrs were separated from the other bones, and placed in their own bust-shaped reliquaries, which were traditionally exposed on the altar on major feast days.
In 1798, when the French armies under Napoleon invaded northern Italy, and the religious orders were suppressed throughout the region, the church of San Francesco Grande was destroyed. The martyrs’ relics were fortunately saved, and brought to the Basilica of St Ambrose; since 1960, they have been enclosed within this reused Paleo-Christian sarcophagus.
It was probably at this point that the reliquaries containing the skulls disappeared, most likely stolen by French soldiers. It was not until 1959 that they were rediscovered, with both the relics and authentication papers sealed and intact, in an antique shop in Namur, Belgium. The bishop of Namur, André Charue, to whom they had been handed over, then generously returned them to Milan; the cardinal archbishop Giovanni Battista Montini, the future Pope Paul VI, had them installed in a new parish built on the outskirts of the city, where they remain to this day, after solemn expositions at both Milan and Lodi.
The New Testament Epistle for their feast, Ephesians 2, 13-22, begins with the words “you, who some time were afar off, are made nigh by the blood of Christ.” This refers to the shedding of the martyrs’ blood in a land far from that of their birth, by which Milan became the place of their true birth into heaven. This same verse is repeated in the Hallelujah that follows it. The Gospel is St Luke’s account of the Transfiguration, chapter 9, 28-36, an unusual choice which seems to present the three martyrs as privileged witnesses of God’s glory, like the Apostles Peter, James, and John. This same theme pervades their very beautiful proper preface.
Truly it is worthy… through Christ our Lord. Who so enkindles the hearts of His faithful with fiery love, that they disdain the failing glory of the world, and through torments, come to the fellowship of the citizens of heaven. For this also, the most learned martyrs of Christ Nabor and Felix, having departed from the furthest ends of the earth, handed themselves over as exiles to this land, lest they be subject to the bloody rule of Caesar. And so that they might come to the court of heavenly King, they chose long to lie hidden beneath the cloak of earthly military service, awaiting the call of the Rule on high. Having firmly taken up the shield of Hope and the breastplate and helmet of Faith, fearlessly they ran into the enemy’s line. They overcome the most fierce torments, prison, beatings, the rack, fire and claw; they bow their neck beneath the groaning of chains, with their hands bound, they are drawn away by the wicked. In the end, their blood being shed by a sword, distinguished by the gory of their triumph, they came unto the citizens of heaven with the palm branch of victory. Through the same Christ our Lord. Through whom the Angels praise Thy majesty…
- Per Christum Dominum nostrum. Qui suorum fidelium corda ignifero amore ita succendit, ut mundi caducam contemnant gloriam, et per tormenta consortium adeant civium supernorum. Ob hoc et doctissimi milites Christi Nabor et Felix, a summis terrarum digressi finibus, huic terrae se exules tradiderunt, ne cruento Caesaris subjacérent imperio. Et ut ad aulam Regis aetherei pergerent, sub chlamyde terrenae militiae latére diutius voluerunt, praestolantes desuper vocationem Imperii. Acceptoque constanter Spei clypeo, sumpta Fidei lorica et galea, securi incedunt in hostis aciem. Vincunt poenarum tormenta saevissima, carcerem, et verbera, equuleum, ignem, et ungulas: stridoribus catenarum colla subjiciunt, trahuntur a noxiis manibus vinculati. Ad ultimum mucrone sanguine fuso, triumphali gloria decorati, ad cives superos cum palma victoriae pervenerunt. Per eundem Christum.