There is a minor basilica, the Basilica of San Zeno, in Verona, Italy, dedicated to St Zeno. Down below the cathedral, the crypt is traditionally where Shakespeare’s doomed lovers Romeo and Juliet were married. Since 921 the crypt has housed the body of St Zeno in a sarcophagus, his face covered by a silver mask.
In the presbytery stands a smiling statue of St Zeno of Verona. Above the bronze cathedral door is a lunette with scenes from Veronese history, including The Consecration of the Veronese Commune, St. Zeno stamping on the Devil, (symbol of imperial power) and St. Zeno delivering a banner to the Veronese people. Under the lunette are bas-reliefs showing the Miracles of St. Zeno.
Zeno of Verona came from Mauretania (Algeria and Morocco) in North Africa, born in the year 300CE. He may have been a follower of Athanasius of Alexandria who followed his master to Verona in about 340. Because many African Christian writers of the time used neologisms and word play, the ancient Sermones texts on Old Testament exegesis have been attributed to St Zeno.
He entered monastic life and would be appointed a bishop, winning converts back from Arianism, setting up a convent for women and reforming how the Agape feast was celebrated. He would not allow loud groaning and wailing at funerals, supported adult baptism by complete immersion and established a practice of giving medals to the newly baptised.
He was the eighth bishops of Verona for a decade or so, and is described as a ‘confessor of the faith’ in early martyrologies, may have suffered persecution under Constantius II and Julian the Apostate — a reference to his ‘happy death’ on 12 April, 371, indicates he may have been martyred. A contemporary letter from St Ambrose of Milan refers to Zeno’s holiness. He is known to have lived in great poverty.
St Zeno is the patron saint of fishermen and anglers, of the city of Verona, of newborn babies as well as children learning to speak and walk. A saint for spiritual toddlers. At least 30 churches and chapels bear his name. He may have been fond of fishing in the River Adige, but the depictions of him with a fishing rod are thought to refer to his success in ‘catching converts’ for the faith. A fisher of men and women for Christ.
In the year 589, at the same time that the Tiber overflowed a considerable quarter of Rome, and the flood over-topped the walls, the waters of the Adige, which fails from the mountains with excessive rapidity, threatened to drown or submerge a great part of the city of Verona. The people flocked in crowds to the church of their holy patron Zeno: the waters seemed to respect its doors, they gradually swelled as high as the windows, yet the flood never broke into the church, but stood like a firm wall, as when the Israelites passed the Jordan; and the people remained there twenty-foul hours in prayer, till the water subsided within the banks of the channel This prodigy had as many witnesses as there were inhabitants of Verona. The devotion of the people to St. Zeno was much increased by this and other miracles
From a sermon by St Zeno:
How earnestly do I desire, if I were able, to celebrate thee, O Patience, queen of all things! but by my life and manners more than by my words. For thou restest in thy own action and council more than in discourses, and in perfecting rather than in multiplying virtues. Thou art the support of virginity, the secure harbor of widowhood, the guide and directress of the married state, the unanimity of friendship, the comfort and joy of slavery, to which thou art often liberty. By thee, poverty enjoys all, because, content with itself, it bears all. By thee, the prophets were advanced in virtue, and the apostles united to Christ. Thou art the daily crown and mother of the martyrs. Thou art the bulwark of faith, the fruit of hope, and the friend of charity. Happy, eternally happy, is he who shall always possess thee in his soul.