Saints Gervasius and Protasius: The Iconography
Gervasius and Protasius were among the earliest martyrs in Milan. Not much more than that is known of them (Butler, II, 583f).
According to the Golden Legend, a Roman general named Astacius was told the gods would not answer his prayers unless the twin brothers Gervasius and Protasius would sacrifice to them. The twins were sons of St. Vitalis, and being Christian they refused to sacrifice. Consequently Astacius had Gervasius beaten to death with a leaden scourge and then ordered Protasius beheaded.
The Golden Legend adds that two centuries later St. Ambrose was praying when in a vision he saw each saint in a white tunic and mantle (colobio et pallio induti) and wearing short boots (caliculi). They were accompanied by St. Paul, who directed Ambrose to where he could find the bodies of these martyrs (Graesse 355, Ryan 327).
This vision is the source of the painting shown at the top of this page, with Ambrose on his knees, Paul with long beard and balding from the front, and the two youths in white. Their colobia are sleeved, as they would probably not be in Ambrose's time, and the artist has suppressed the boots, but otherwise the image is very faithful to what the Legend reports.
One source of the account of Ambrose's vision is a letter thought to have been written by him to the bishops of Italy. One comment in the letter is of some importance to students of the interactions between hagiography and iconography. The saint says that he recognized St. Paul from having seen his picture (cujus vultum me pictura docuerat, Acta Sanctorum, June vol. 3, 821).
The iconography of these saints is very unsettled, but a few features are relatively constant.
Usually the twins are portrayed as handsome young men. In the letter attributed to Ambrose he calls them iuvenes ephebos – that is, youths of about 18-20 years old (ibid.). The Golden Legend (ibid.) calls them pulcherrimi iuvenes – "most beautiful" youths. In another instance of the art influencing the hagiography, the adjective may have been influenced by the way the two had already been pictured. In the 6th-century mosaics at right, for example, they are shown as handsome and beardless young men. They are also beardless, if perhaps less handsome, in the 11th-century book cover shown below and in most later portraits. A few images from later times do give them beards, as in the 15th-century illumination below.
That illumination also gives the saints swords and military garb, as does a painting of Protasius from the 16th century. Neither the Legend nor the Ambrosian letter says that they were soldiers, but their father Vitalis was an officer and a nobleman, so the assumption may have been that they had once followed in his footsteps, or simply that the profession of arms was appropriate for men of their age and status. The short boots, characteristic of soldiers, may also have supported such an assumption.
In portraits without the military garb, the saints' attributes are a scourge for Gervasius and a sword for Protasius (example). In one curious case Gervasius holds both a whip and a sword, as if he had been beheaded after the whipping. A statuary group in Milan also seems to assume that both were beheaded, as they have identical swords as their attributes.
Another attribute used occasionally is the hand cross, as in the book cover at right and in this mosaic in Sant'Ambrogio in Milan.
The white tunic and mantle specified in the Legend are perhaps the most common attributes both in portraits and in narrative images, as in the painting at the top of this page and this painting of their arrest.
In the Middle Ages the words colobium and pallium referred to liturgical vestments, which seems to be the reason that Gervasius and Protasius are sometimes dressed as deacons (example).
Prepared in 2013 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University
Philippe de Champaigne, "Saints Gervase and Protase Appearing to St. Ambrose" (See the description page.)
OTHER IMAGES (Thumbnails: click for full image and description)
Gervasius in the triumphal arch at San Vitale, Ravenna
Protasius in the same arch
With Ambrose, 11th century Gospel cover
15th century Manuscript illumination
The Martyrdom, 19th century