The church of Milan today celebrates the feast of the martyr St Victor, a Christian soldier from the Roman province of Africa, who was killed in the first year of the persecution of Diocletian, 303 AD, while serving at Milan under the Emperor Maximian. He is usually called “Maurus – the Moor” to distinguish him from the innumerable other Saints called Victor, which was a very common name in the Roman world. His remains were originally buried in a small church just outside the city walls, but in the later part of the 4th century, St Ambrose translated them to a chapel built for that purpose, where he also later buried his own brother. (This chapel is within a basilica originally built to house the relics of two Milanese martyrs named Gervasius and Protasius, whose relics Ambrose discovered; he is now buried with them under the high altar, and the church is generally referred to as the “basilica ambrosiana.”) In the 9th century, the relics were returned to the original church, known as St Victor ‘ad corpus’, and have remained there ever since; they were officially recognized as authentic by the archbishop of Milan, Bl. Ildephonse Schuster in 1941.
(The ceiling of the chapel of St Victor ‘in Ciel d’Oro – in the golden heaven’, within the basilica of St Ambrose in Milan. Victor is shown in the middle, holding a book with his name written on it; in the corners are the symbols of the four Evangelists. To the left, on the walls below, are shown the martyred brothers Protasius and Gervasius, with St Ambrose between them; on the opposite side, Ss Nabor and Felix, with the bishop of Milan St Maternus, who discovered their remains at Laus Pompeia. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY 3.0)
There is no doubt of the historical fact of Victor’s martyrdom, but the written account of it is a later work, and considered historically unreliable in many of its details. However, one of the indisputably authentic hymns of St Ambrose is about St Victor, and two other African soldiers named Nabor and Felix, who were beheaded at Laus Pompeia (now called “Lodi Vecchio” in Italian), about 18 ½ miles to the southeast of Milan; their feast is kept on July 12th. The hymn speaks of Milan’s pride in these “guests upon this soil, of the Moorish nation, strangers in our lands, … (whom she) stole from the camps of the wicked and consecrated to Christ.” (Solo hospites, Mauri genus, terrisque nostris advenæ. … Castrisque raptos impiis, Christo sacravit milites.)
St Ambrose also mentions them in his commentary on the Gospel of St Luke (7, 128), one of the most widely read and influential of his works. Much of it was originally written as sermon notes, and retains the character of a sermon in its written redaction, as when he speaks to his congregation of “our martyrs.”
“(Jesus) said therefore, ‘To what is the kingdom of God like, and to what shall I reckon it to be similar? It is like a grain of mustard seed, which a man took and cast into his garden, and it grew and became a great tree, and the birds of the air lodged in the branches thereof.” (Luke 13, 18-19)
“Nunc ex natura sinapis, quae virtus comparationis sit aestimemus. Granum ejus certe res est vilis et simplex: si teri coeperit, vim suam fundit. Etiam fides primo simplex videtur: sed si teratur adversis, gratiam suae virtutis effundit; ut alios quoque qui vel audiunt, vel legunt, odore sui compleat. Granum sinapis martyres nostri sunt Felix, Nabor, et Victor: habebant odorem fidei, sed latebat. Venit persecutio, arma posuerunt, colla flexerunt, contriti gladio per totius terminos mundi gratiam sui sparsere martyrii, ut jure dicatur: In omnem terram exivit sonus eorum.
(St Victor, by Jacopo, Gentile and Giovanni Bellini, ca. 1464-70. Image from Wikimedia Commons by Sailko, CC BY-SA 3.0)
Now, according to the nature of the mustard, let us reckon what is the meaning of the comparison. Its grain is certainly a common and simple thing; if it begins to be ground, it pours forth its vigor. Faith also seems simple at first, if it be ground by adversity, it pours forth the grace of its virtue, so as to fill others who hear or read of it with its perfume. The grain of mustard is our martyrs Felix, Nabor and Victor; they had the perfume of faith, but it lay hidden. The persecution came: they laid down their weapons, they bent their necks (i.e. before the executioner), and, being ground down by the sword, spread the grace of their martyrdom through all the ends of the world, so that it is rightly said (of them), ‘Their sound has gone out unto all the earth.’ (Ps. 18,5) ”