Saints Vitalis and Valeria of Milan: The Iconography

In Ravenna, the natal day Not his birthday but the day he died and was "born again" into Heaven of St. Vitalis, husband of St. Valeria and father of SS. Gervasius and Protasius. When he buried blessed Ursicinus with due honors he was arrested by the Consul Paulinus. After he was tortured on the rack it was ordered that he be cast into a deep pit and buried under earth and stones. By this martyrdom he passed to Christ. – Roman Martyrology for April 28

According to the Golden Legend St. Vitalis of Milan was a consular knight (miles consularis) in the time of Nero who got into trouble when he publicly exhorted a Christian to stand firm under torture. For this he was himself tortured on the rack and then buried alive. His wife Valeria was also martyred at another time, for refusing to eat food that had been sacrificed to idols. The medieval sources all say the couple were the parents of Saints Gervasius and Protasius.

As an important military figure, St. Vitalis is shown on an impressive white horse in the picture at right. St. Valeria stands at his side, dressed as a distinguished matron of the 16th century. Perhaps the most famous image of St. Vitalis is the mosaic in the apse at San Vitale, Ravenna.

The couple seem to have no fixed attributes. They appear together in this Romanesque ivory where the husband holds a book and a short sceptre and the wife a sceptre-like object with a flame burning at one end. There is a passage in the Golden Legend where the priest who had Vitalis condemned is seized by a demon for seven days and cries out, "You are setting me on fire, Vitalis!" (Ryan, I, 250). But that passage would not explain why it is Valeria who is holding the flaming sceptre. More likely the sceptres refer to the couple's status as Roman nobility and the flame to Valeria's virtue in general. In a medieval street relief Valeria carries a large pitcher in one hand and leads her young son with the other. No pitcher figures in the stories of Valeria or of the sons in the Golden Legend, nor in the Passio published in the Acta Sanctorum.

Photo of the street relief: Wikimedia Commons. Other photos by Richard Stracke, shared under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike license. This page prepared in 2015 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Augusta University. Revised 2016-10-27.

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Saints Vitalis and Valeria, 1514 (See description page)


St. Vitalis in the Palatine Chapel, Palermo, 12th century


St. Valeria in Poreč, Croatia, 5th century

DATES

  • The Golden Legend says St. Vitalis died in the first century, and Papebrochius agrees that it is most likely to have occurred in the mid-1st (Ryan, I, 250. Acta Sanctorum, April vol. 3, 563.). Butler considers it more likely that they died in the 2nd century under Marcus Aurelius (II, 181).

NAMES

  • In Italy St. Vitalis is known as San Vitale.

HAGIOGRAPHY

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