July 23, 2019

Holy Martyr Vitale of Ravenna

St. Vitale of Ravenna (Feast Day - July 23)


Apollinaris was cut down,
Vitale hastened at once to arrive.

Saint Vitale (Vitalius, Vitalis) was born in Milan, where he was a soldier and wealthy citizen. He was married to a woman named Valeria, and was the father of Milan’s patron saints, Gervasius and Protasius.

Vitale witnessed the execution of Saint Ursicinus of Ravenna. He was on the sidelines, encouraging him to die like a good and faithful martyr of Christ. Once Ursicinus was dead, Vitale took his body away for burial. In doing so, he caught the attention of the persecuting judge, Paulinus, who consequently ordered Vitale to be tortured and then buried alive. Vitale was thrown into a deep pit and covered with stones.

It was now Valeria’s time to retrieve the dead body of her husband, but the Christians of Ravenna refused to give up the relics of their new martyred saint. So Valeria set off for home without the body of her husband and empty-handed. On the way to Milan, she was accosted by a gang of evil villains who ordered her to sacrifice to Silvanus, the god of the forest. Valeria rebuked the idolaters, who swiftly struck her down. She was carried home to Milan, where she died three days later.

After the death of their parents, Gervasius and Protasius gave their possessions to the poor and lived the life of piety for ten years until they, too, were martyred. Saint Ambrose later dug them up, enshrined them in his new basilica and made them the patron saints of Milan.

The earliest surviving text recording the martyrdoms of Saint Vitale and his family is a letter dated to the late fourth or the early fifth century attributed to Saint Ambrose (Pseudo Ambrogio, Letter 2 on the Discovery of Gervasius and Protasius), in which is inserted a report by a certain Phillip, who was a purported witness to the martyrdom of the twin brothers.

It is not certain whether these events took place during the time of Nero (d. 68), during the reigns of Decius or Valerian in the third century, or during the Diocletian persecutions (303–305). Proper history only begins with Saint Ambrose’s letter to his sister, Marcella, in which he mentions in few details the discovery of relics which he determined were those of Gervasius and Protasius.

From the obscurity of the martyrdom of Saint Vitale has risen one of the most famous churches in Western Christendom. On the traditional location where he was buried alive in Ravenna stands the octagonal-shaped Basilica of San Vitale, consecrated on May 17, 548 and most famous for containing the largest and best preserved Byzantine mosaics outside of Constantinople. All five characters mentioned in the story above — Ursicinus, Vitale, Valeria, Gervasius and Protasius — are commemorated in the church, whose mosaics most famously include an image of Emperor Justinian (d. 565). The same five saints are also depicted across town in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (Ravenna).