Wednesday, December 7, 2016

Saint Ambrose – Speaking Truth to Power

Saint Ambrose
from a Picture Bible
French (St. Omer, Abbey of St. Bertin),c.1190-1200
The Hague, Koninklijk Bibliotheek
MS KB 76 F 5, fol. 38v

Saint Ambrose is one of those saints that people have heard of but often know little about.  He is most frequently mentioned as the man whose preaching finally “got through” to a young North African man about Christianity and, subsequent to that young man’s conversion, baptized him.  The young man went on to become St. Augustine of Hippo, whose fame would eventually far surpass that of the man who was so influential in his life. 

But Ambrose himself is interesting.  He leads us back into the brief period between the official toleration of Christianity under Constantine the Great in 315 and the final fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476.  His death occurred between the first Danube crossing of the Goths in 375 and the much larger and more destructive crossing of the Rhine by Goths, Franks and others in 405.  In his time some of what are now the fundamental elements of Christian belief were still not fixed and there were many versions of Christianity striving for dominance and membership.

Many of the events of his life were cast in bronze in 835 when the Altar of Saint Ambrose was created by a goldsmith called Vuolvinus (or Wolfinus) at the request of his successor, Archbishop Angilbert II. (Both of these names, which are Germanic in origin, show how the world had changed in between.)  
Vuolvinus, Scenes from the Life of Saint Ambrose
German, c. 835-840
Milan, Basilica of Sant Ambrogio

He was born sometime around 340 in the city of Trier, in what is now Germany, but which was at that time the capital of the western half of the Roman Empire, comprising what is now the countries of France, Belgium, parts of Switzerland, England, Spain, Southern Germany and parts of Austria.  Although of Roman origin, he was born there because his father was the Imperial Prefect of the province of Gaul (modern day France and Belgium).  When he was a few years old his father died and Ambrose’s mother moved the family (he had a brother and a sister) back to Rome.  It was there that Ambrose received an education appropriate for a career in Imperial service, similar to his father’s.  And, that is the career path on which he began.

In about 370 he was appointed as the Governor of the province of Aemilia-Liguria on the northern Mediterranean coast of Italy, with his capital at Milan.  This was a highly prestigious appointment, as Milan was the working capital of the entire Western Roman Empire (including Italy and the area of which his own father had been Prefect).
Juan de Valdes Leal, St. Ambrose Appointed Governor of Liguria and Emilia
Spanish, c.1673
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

His governorship brought him into the circle of the Imperial Court and of the ongoing religious conflict between the Arian and Catholic Christians.   In this period, there was a considerable amount of conflict over how to comprehend the person of Jesus.  Was He a divine being or a human being?  Was His nature that of God or of man?  Was His apparent human form a kind of façade or mask for a divine being?  There were many divergent views.  It would be another 80 years before the Council of Chalcedon was able to agree on the definition of Jesus as combining both the natures of God and of man in one person without one nature taking over the other. 1

Vuolvinus,  Flight of Saint Ambrose After His Election as Bishop
German, c.835-840
Milan, Basilica of Sant Ambrogio

The Arians professed a form of Christian faith that denied the divine nature of Jesus and at this time counted among their adherents many influential people, including Justina, the wife of the Western Emperor Valentinian I, who resided in Milan.  Following the death of the Arian bishop, Auxentius, who had been imposed on the largely Catholic church in Milan by the Imperial family, it became likely that a riot would ensue between the two types of believers.  In this time, bishops were still being elected by popular acclaim of the entire population of Christians in the city and elections could sometimes turn violent.  As governor Ambrose went to the cathedral to maintain the peace.  To his surprise, the crowd began to cry “Ambrose, bishop!” and proceeded to acclaim him as bishop. 

Horrified, Ambrose ran away and hid in a colleague’s house.  Valentinian, who was pleased that an Imperial official and someone whom the Arians thought of as a “moderate” had been elected, then decreed that anyone who would harbor him would be severely punished.  This forced Ambrose to save his friends, so he left his hiding place and accepted that he had been chosen as the new bishop.  But, before he could assume his new duties there were a few obstacles.  For one thing, even though he was a “cradle” Christian, he wasn’t yet baptized, even though he was around 35 years old!

Vuolvinus, Baptism of St. Ambrose
German, c.835-840
Milan, Basilica of Sant-Ambrogio

In this period infant baptism was not yet the norm for Christians.  People often delayed baptism for many years, being baptized only on their deathbeds in many cases.  Ambrose would have had a basic understanding of Christian doctrine, of course, but had been educated for a secular career in the law, not for the church.

However, within a week of his election he was baptized, ordained a priest and then ordained a bishop.  Knowing that his education had not prepared him for his new role, he also began a serious and in-depth study of the Bible and of church doctrine and was so successful in his studies that he became an eloquent preacher and writer.  In fact, he was so successful in his studies and in the use that he made of them that he became one of the four original doctors of the western church.2

Vuolvinus, Saint Ambrose Ordained a Bishop
German, c.835-840
Milan, Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio

Among the events of his life after his election as bishop the most dramatic involved his several conflicts with the Emperors of both the Western and Eastern parts of the Roman Empire.  When the Western Emperor Valens, the Arian son of Valentinian, and his mother, Justina, attempted to take over one of the churches of the diocese of Milan for the Arians, Ambrose led the resistance of the majority of people in the city.  The Emperor and his mother were forced to back down.

Later, in 390, when the Eastern Emperor Theodosius I, who had taken control of the Western Empire as well and had moved to Milan, ordered the massacre of over 7,000 people as a reprisal for a rebellion in one of the Eastern provinces, Ambrose urged him to demonstrate public penance.   Legend increases the drama of this event by setting it as a public confrontation before the doors of Milan cathedral.  The reality was probably less dramatic.  However, the result was remarkable, as the Emperor did do public penance before Ambrose. 

Anthony van Dyck, Emperor Theodosius Prevented by Saint Ambrose From Entering Milan Cathedral
Flemish, 1619-1620
London, National Gallery

Giovanni Domenico Tiepolo. Emperor Theodosius Prevented by Saint Ambrose From Entering Milan Cathedral
Italian, 1749-1751
Würzburg, Archepiscopal Residence, Kaisersaal

Jules Lenepveu,  Emperor Theodosius Prevented by Saint Ambrose From Entering Milan Cathedral
French, c.1850-1860
Paris, Church of Saint-Ambroise

Federico Barocci, St. Ambrose Absolves Theodosius I
Italian, 1603
Milan, Cathedral 

Pierre Subleyras, Emperor Theodosius Receiving Absolution from Saint Ambrose, Archbishop of Milan
French, c.1740
Paris, Musée du Louvre

These events have been among the most popular in the iconography of Saint Ambrose, especially in the period following the Reformation.  This series of breaks from the unity of the Church, had received a huge boost in its spread, due to secular rulers taking it up as a means to achieve their own ends (as for example, Henry VIII in England, who used it to further his own end of dissolving his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, or the secular rulers of several German states, who saw it as a way to oppose the Holy Roman Emperors).  The conflict between Saint Ambrose and Theodosius I could thus serve as a classical Catholic example of the proper role of the Church in guiding and correcting the secular powers, by challenging them over their actions, rather than bending to their will.

Philippe de Champaigne, Appartition of Saints Gervais and Protais to Saint Ambrose
French, c.1657-1660
Paris, Musée du Louvre

Also dramatic was the discovery in 386 of the bodies of the martyr saints Gervasius and Protasius.  The bodies of these two martyr brothers was located under the floor of a Milanese church.  The search was guided by a dream in which they appeared to Ambrose and showed him where to find them.   Their remains rest today in the same chapel in which the body of Ambrose also rests.

Philippe de Champaigne, Discovery of the Relics of Saints Gervais and Protais
French, 1657-1660
Lyon, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Philippe de Champaigne. Translation of the Bodies of Saints Gervais and Protais
French, 1657-1660
Paris, Musée du Louvre

There are several legends associated with St. Ambrose.  The most commonly seen one is that of the “miracle of the bees”.  According to this legend, when Ambrose was a baby in the cradle, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he was sleeping.  They did no harm, but left a drop of honey on his lips.  His father, seeing this, prophesied that great things would come from his baby son.  So, occasionally, St. Ambrose will be seen holding a beehive or with some other reference to bees.
Vuolvinus, Bees Swarm the Sleeping Ambrose
German, c.835-840
Milan, Church of Sant Ambrogio

Laurenz Benz, Saint Ambrose
German, c.1865, 
Schwaebisch Gmuend, St. Joseph Chapel
Here the saint carries a beehive, one of his symbols.

Fra Filippo Lippi, Miracle of the Bees
Italian, 1441-1447
Berlin, Kaiser-Freiedrichs-Museum
In addition to the events of his life, both real and legendary, St. Ambrose is remembered as one of the four doctors of the Latin-speaking Church.  The other three are, St. Jerome, St. Gregory the Great and St. Augustine.

Guillaume Vrelant, Saints Ambrose, Augustine  and Thomas Aquinas
from a Book of Hours
Flemish (Bruges), 1455-1465
New York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 387. fol. 105v
Follower of Pieter Coecke van Aelst, St. Ambrose and St. Augustine
Wing from an Altarpiece
Flemish, c.1525-1530
Norfolk UK, Oxburgh Hall

Pedro Berruguete, Saints Ambrose and Augustine
Spanish, c.1495-1500
Madrid, Museo Nacional del Prado

In this he may appear as a member of the group of Doctors, as for instance in Bernini's masterpiece, the Chair of Peter, or he may appear individually, as a writer.

Michael Pacher, Altarpiece of the Church Fathers
German, c.1483
Munich, Alte Pinakotek

Battista di Benedetto, Group of Confessor Saints
Italian, 1600
Rome, Church of San Vitale
This grouping includes the Doctors as well as other, popular saints, such as Francis, Benedict and Anthony Abbot.

Giovanni Lorenzo Bernini, St. Ambrose
Terracotta bozzetto (model) for the Chair of Peter
Italian, late 1650s
St. Petersburg, State Hermitage Museum

Abraham Van Diepenbeeck, The Four Doctors of Church
Flemish, 1650-16660
Bordeaux, Musée des Beaux-Arts

St. Ambrose Dictating or Teaching
from a Breviary
French (Paris), 1345-1355
New  York, Pierpont Morgan Library
MS M 75, fol. 567r

St. Ambrose in his study
Spanish (Palencia), c.1500
New  York, Metropolitan Museum of Art

Gerard Seghers, St. Ambrose
(from a set of Four Doctors of the Church)
Flemish, c.1600
Dorset UK, Kingston Lacy Estate

Mathias Stomer, Saint Ambrose
Dutch, c.1633-1639
Rennes, Musée des Beaux-Arts

Franz Martin Kuen, St. Ambrose
German, 1743-1766
Ulm, Wengen Church (Destroyed 1944)

A series of manuscript illuminations he appears with his fellow Doctors as defenders of those besieged in the Fortress of Faith by various opponents.
Follower of Loyset Liedet, Fortress of Faith
from Fortalitium fidei of Alphonsus de Spina
North French or Belgian (Lille or Bruges), c. 1475-1500
London, British Library
MS Royal 17 F VI, fol. 26

Follower of Loyset Liedet, Fortress of Faith
from Fortalitium fidei of Alphonsus de Spina
North French or Belgian (Lille or Bruges), c. 1475-1500
London, British Library
MS Royal 17 F VI, fol. 101

Follower of Loyset Liedet, Fortress of Faith
from Fortalitium fidei of Alphonsus de Spina
North French or Belgian (Lille or Bruges), c. 1475-1500
London, British Library
MS Royal 17 F VI, fol. 146

Follower of Loyset Liedet, Fortress of Faith
from Fortalitium fidei of Alphonsus de Spina
North French or Belgian (Lille or Bruges), c. 1475-1500
London, British Library
MS Royal 17 F VI, fol. 129

In addition, as with other saints, Saint Ambrose may appear as a patron, often shown presenting his "client" to the Madonna and Child, but, also, as patron of the nation.  In this case, the "nation" is the city of Milan.  Like Ambrose, his successors were the spiritual leaders of the city, while the ruling dynasties came and went.

Attributed to NIvardus, St. Ambrose Blessing the Standard
from Prayer Book of Archbishop Arnulph II of Milan
Italian (Milan, 998-1018)
London, British Library
MS Egerton 3763, fol. 121v

Master of the Pala Sforzesca, Madonna and Child Enthroned with the Doctors of the Church and the Family of Ludovico il Moro
The "Sforza Altarpiece"
Italian, 1494-1495
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

Albrecht Bouts and Workshop, St. Ambrose with Ambrosius van Engelen
Flemish, c.1520
London, National Gallery

Paris Bordone, Holy Family with St. Ambrose Presenting a Donor
Italian, 1524-1526
Milan, Pinacoteca di Brera

St. Ambrose died in 397.  He was buried in Milan.  His feast day is celebrated on December 7.3

Vuolvinus, Death of St. Ambrose
German, c.835-840
Milan, Church of Sant Ambrogio

Bon Boullogne the Elder, Death of Saint Ambrose
French, c.1700
Paris, Musée du Louvre

© M. Duffy, 2016

  1. I cover this situation in more detail in “Saint Leo the Great, Protector of Rome and Doctor of the Church” at
  2.  See comments on St. Ambrose as a Doctor of the Church by Pope Benedict XVI made on October 24, 2007 at
  3. For more information on the life of St. Ambrose and his writings see  Loughlin, James. "St. Ambrose." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 1. New York: Robert Appleton Company,1907 at <>

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