Ambrose. Letter to Simplician 126.96.36.199.17: Saemo 19, pp.75, 77, 79, 81: every wise man is free and every fool a slave...it is not then nature which makes a person a slave, but folly; not manumission that sets free, but discipline...whom do you consider as more truly free? Wisdom alone is free, she sets the poor over the rich and makes the servants lend at usury to their own masters; lend, that is, not money but understanding, lend the talent of divine and eternal treasure, which is never wasted, the mere loan of which is precious (cfr. Matthew 25, 14-30)... he is more truly free, he who is free within himself, who is free by the laws of nature, knowing that the measure of his obligations is in accordance not with the will of man but with the discipline of nature.
Aurelius Ambrosius (better known in English as Ambrose) was born in 339-340 to a prominent Roman senatorial family. Aurelius was his mother’s family name and symmachus, his father’s. He was born in trier in Roman Gaul (now Germany) where his father held the office of praetorian prefect of Gaul. Ambrose’s family had been Christians for several generations. He highly esteemed and proudly cited his relative saint Soter, a Christian martyr, who “preferred faith over the family professions of consulates and prefectures”. Ambrose had two older siblings: his sister, Marcellina (consecrated nun with the blessing of pope Liberius in 353) and his brother, Satyrus, who were both venerated as saints.
Ambrose was destined for an administrative career, in his father’s footsteps. after his father’s untimely death, he attended the best schools in Rome, where he completed the traditional trivium and quadrivium studies (he learned Greek and studied law, literature and rhetoric) and consequently participated in the public life of the city. In 370, after five years practicing law in Sirmium, he was appointed governor of the Roman province “Aemilia et Liguria” based in Milan, where he became a prominent figure at the court of the emperor, Valentinian I. Ambrose’s skill in oratory allowed him to peacefully settle the continual, bitter conflicts between the Arians and the Catholics, which earned him deep appreciation and respect on the part of both factions. In 374, upon the death of the arian bishop, Auxentius, the delicate balance between the two factions began to waver and precipitate rapidly. The biographer Paulinus narrates that Ambrose was concerned about the population in revolt over the appointment of the new bishop and desiring to calm them went to the church, where he suddenly heard the voice of a child cry “Ambrose bishop!” the entire assembly gathered in the church, catholics and arians, old and young, priests and lay people were so astonished by the cry that they repeated all together, “Ambrose bishop”. The new bishop was hence elected “Vox populi, vox dei” (by popular acclaim) their governor, even though he was a mere catechumen and moreover was not inclined towards an ecclesiastical vocation. The Milanese wanted a catholic as their new bishop. Ambrose, however, flatly refused the appointment because he felt unprepared for the office, as he had not yet been baptized, which was common practise in some Christian families at the time, nor had he studied theology.
Paulinus was a deacon of the Church and Ambrose’s biographer. He narrates that Ambrose tried to dissuade the population from electing him bishop of Milan by undermining his excellent reputation: he sentenced some defendants to be tortured and invited prostitutes to his home. These actions did not dissuade the population and Ambrose was forced to escape and go into hiding. When the people found him, Ambrose decided to resolve the issue by appealing to the authority of the emperor Flavio Valentinian (brother of Valentinian I). He unfortunately did not find any support in the emperor who instead said he was proud to have chosen Ambrose, a politician considered worthy of fulfilling the responsibilities of the episcopal office. Ambrose, at that point, faced with such arduous pressures, accepted the office reflecting that this was the will of God and hence he decided to be baptized. He received the sacrament of baptism within seven days and was ordained bishop on December 7, 374. Just before his death, Ambrose wrote, in reference to his election to bishop “...how vehemently I resisted ordination! and when I was at last constrained to consent, how I strove that it might be postponed! ...but the popular impulse prevailed over prescribed rules...”
Although Ambrose felt “... I was carried off from the judgment seat, to enter on the priesthood”, he regarded his appointment to the episcopacy seriously and devoted himself entirely to extensive biblical and theological studies. Upon being ordained, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, bestowed his goods to the poor and donated his properties (except what he had provided for his sister Marcellina).
He was a benevolent man who kept his door open to all, and worked tirelessly for the good of the citizens entrusted to his care. St. Ambrose did not hesitate, for instance, to break the sacred vessels and to use the proceeds from the sale to redeem prisoners. The Arians strongly criticized him for this gesture, to which he replied, “it is better to preserve for the Lord souls rather than gold. he who sent the apostles without gold also gathered the churches without gold. The sacraments need not gold, nor are they proper to gold only -- for they are not bought with gold.” (De officiis, ii, 28, 136-138).
In 386, Augustine had come to Milan to teach rhetoric. The wisdom Ambrose imparted in his preaching and his prestige as bishop of Milan, indubitably influenced Augustine to convert to Christianity. Ambrose had several churches built during his episcopal office, including four - one on each side of the city - forming, as it were, a protective square. Ambrose wrote several prayer hymns, implemented fundamental reforms in the religious cult and sacred chants, which he first introduced into the Christian liturgy. There is a school still today that has passed down these ancient chants over the centuries.
He wrote dissertations on morals and theology with which he opposed the doctrinal errors of his time. He supported and defended the primacy of the bishop of Rome, against other bishops (including Palladio) that considered him equal to them. He was active in the fight against arianism, which had many followers in Milan and at the imperial court. This, in fact, is the reason for the conflict with the empress Justina (mother of Flavio Valentinian and Gratian) of arian faith. He almost certainly influenced the religious policies of the emperor Gratian, who he had tutored, and who in 380 decreed harsher penalties for heretics and declared Christianity the religion of the state in the edict of Thessalonica. Tensions rose to perilous heights in the years 385-386, following the death of Gratian, when the Arians insistently demanded, supported by the imperial court, a church in which to practice their religion. Ambrose opposed their request so vehemently that it spurred the famous episode in which he and the faithful catholics “occupied” the church that had been destined for the Arians until they were forced to renounce their demands. It was on this occasion, it has been narrated that Ambrose introduced the custom of antiphonal chants, which is singing prayers in the form of a hymn, to keep the congregation of faithful occupying the basilica awake. Moreover, in 386, the discovery of the bodies of saints Gervasius and Protasius accelerated Ambrose’s victory in the controversy with the Arians and he won the consent of most of the faithful in the city.
Ambrose was a formidable opponent of “official” Roman paganism that was, however, in decline at that time. He quarrelled with the senator Quintus Aurelius Symmachus who demanded restoring the statue of the Goddess victory to the altar, which the Roman Curia, seat of the senate had removed in 382 by Gratian’s decree.
In 390 Ambrose severely reprimanded the emperor Theodosius, who had ordered the massacre of the people of Thessalonica, who were guilty of having lynched the chief of the Roman Garrison in the city. Theodosius, under the guise of a horse race in the area, attracted thousands of people and in three hours ruthlessly murdered them. When Ambrose found out about the massacre, he avoided an open confrontation with the imperial power (under the pretext of an illness, he did not publicly meet with Theodosius). He, instead, wrote a confidential letter to the emperor, demanding his ‘public penance’, guilty of such a grave crime though declaring himself a Christian; otherwise he would be excluded from the sacred rites, “I dare not offer the sacrifice if you intend to be present”, letter 11. Theodosius agreed to submit to the will of the bishop and performed an act of public penance on Christmas eve of that year, upon which he was absolved and readmitted to the sacraments. Ambrose was often confronted with the despotism and debauchery that had characterized the behaviour of many Roman emperors, and considered Christianity the chance to “redeem” the imperial power and make it just and merciful. His reasoning was that Christianity would replace paganism in Roman society without denying or destroying the imperial institution.
The overall degradation of society was plain to all, evidenced in the inequalities of the interests of a small minority of wealthy at the expense of the growing number of people in need. Unproductive large estates were in the hands of a few rich people, while small landowners were forced to leave their lands and were driven to the city to live in misery. Ambrose reproached the numerous injustices in society in his actions and his beliefs. the bishop denounced this unbearable social injustice and at the same time warned against wealth and avarice, greed and oppression. He especially and fervently criticized those who took advantage of the hardships of others reducing them to poverty and despair (in particular, the money lenders). He reminded the population that earth was created for all and not for a privileged few. “The earth was established in common for all, rich and poor. why do you alone, o rich, demand special treatment? [...] [rich man] it is not anything of yours that you are bestowing on the poor [when you say ‘tomorrow i will give’]; rather, you are giving back something of his; for you alone are usurping what was given in common for the use of all.” (Naboth, 1.2; 12, 53). Ambrose dedicated more than half of his writings to biblical exegesis, which he addressed primarily following an allegorical and moral interpretation of the holy scriptures (specifically regarding the old testament). for instance, he favoured finding Christ figures or examples of moral virtues in the patriarchs and biblical personages. Augustine was fascinated with Ambrose’s method of interpreting the bible, which convinced him to convert to Christianity (as he wrote in his confessions v, 14, 24).
The works of Ambrose deeply influenced liturgy. He introduced many elements from eastern liturgies into the western church, especially songs and hymns. the hymn te deum laudamus is attributed to Ambrose. The liturgical reforms of bishop Ambrose were maintained in the diocese of Milan by his successors and were the basis for establishing the ambrosian rite, which has survived, until today, the standardization of the rites and the establishment of the one Roman rite by pope Gregory I and the Council of Trento. It is said that at the end of his life, Ambrose confided: “... nor do i fear to die, for we have a good Lord”. He left a wealth of teachings, especially on moral and social life. To understand the moral and ethical content of the saint who left such an extraordinary, and not only religious, influence on western civilization it is imperative to relate excerpts from some of his literary works:
“What could be more wonderful than the fact that labour and honour are common to all and that power is not the prerogative of the few but rather passes from one to another without exception as if by free decision? This is the exercise of an office proper to an ancient republic, as befits a free state” (Hexameron, VIII, 15, 51).“that which is adored by all is rightly considered as one. we all contemplate the same stars, we share the same sky, and we are surrounded by the same universe: what matters which doctrine each of us follows in his quest for the truth? it is so great a mystery that it cannot be reached by a single path” (Ibid, 10: 21 Saemo, pp.55, 57).
There are many legends of miraculous episodes relating to saint Ambrose’s life. We have indicated several episodes that are often found in the iconography of the saint: once, when Ambrose was a baby asleep in his crib in the atrium of the praetorian, a swarm of bees suddenly landed on his face and were continually flying in and out of his mouth. after a while, the swarm flew away and rose up so high in the air that human eyes could no longer see them. The father, impressed by this event exclaimed, “if my son will live, he will surely become a great man.”
- One day, when Ambrose was walking in Milan, he came across a blacksmith who could not bend the bridle of a horse. Ambrose recognized in that bridle one of the nails with which Christ had been crucified. After going through several changes of hands, a “nail of the crucifixion” is still hanging in the Duomo of Milan, high above the main altar.
- In the square in front of the Basilica of Saint Ambrose in Milan there stands a column, commonly called “The Devil’s column”. It is a Roman column, which has two holes, and the legend narrates that the column witnessed a fight between saint Ambrose and the devil that was trying to pierce the holy man with his horns and instead pierced the column. The demon tried for a very long time to break free, and when he finally did, he fled in fright. Popular tradition has it that the holes smell of sulphur and if one leans an ear to the stone one can hear the sounds of hell. The column was actually used for the coronation of German emperors.
- On February 21, 1339, during the battle of Parabiago, Ambrose appeared, according to the account by Galvano fiamma, “in white robes and holding the scourge, striking enemies who had taken over the victory.” Thanks to his intervention, “the enemy forces were weakened and defeated. there was then a procession of clergy and the population to the Basilica of st Ambrose.” From that moment on, the iconography of st. Ambrose changed. Ambrose is riding a horse like the other horsemen; instead of brandishing the sword he uses the scourge and becomes the protector of the Visconti. Ambrose on horseback, while unsheathing a sword, put fear into the company of St George, led by Lodrisio Visconti, permitting the Milanese troops of his brother Luchino and nephew Azzone to win. In memory of this legend the Church of saint Ambrose of the victory was built in Parabiago and there is a panel on a bronze door of the Cathedral in Milan dedicated to this event.
The biography of Ambrose, written by Paulinus contains a myriad of anecdotes, with which the biographer aspired to demonstrate the authority of his beloved Ambrose: - cresconius had sought refuge in church; nevertheless, count stilicho had commanded his soldiers to forcefully arrest him. Following the arrest, the soldiers went to the circus games where there was a wild beasts show. The leopards in the show escaped from the hands of their tamers and “with a rapid leap ran to the place where those [soldiers] were sitting ... and left them horribly mangled”. The pagan stilicho connected the incident to divine wrath for the arrest of a Christian and immediately released him, and “he was seized with remorse, thus for quite a long time he willingly accepted the wishes of the bishop”.
- The following episode is more amusing. Ambrose was walking with one of his secretaries, Teodulo, when a passer-by in front of them tripped and fell to the ground amid the laughter of Teodulo, who was immediately warned by the bishop: “wherefore let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall” (1 cor. 10: 12). Astounded by this prophecy, Teodulo “who had laughed at the fall of others complained of his own”.
- There are also episodes that recount positive and not purely disciplinary intervention. The saint accidently stepped on the foot of a patient suffering from gout and healed him. Paulinus, who at the time of the episode was already in the service of Ambrose, reported he incident and also provided us the name, Nicentius, as well as his military rank.
- While Ambrose was in Rome he healed the son of a nobleman. When he was in Florence he cast out the demon from a child, and when the demon took hold of its victim again, killing him, Ambrose resurrected the child by placing his body over the child’s as Elisha had done.
- In a niche of the Church of S. Maria alla rosa (via spadari, that no longer is standing) there was a wooden statue of the patron saint. One day, during the Cisalpine Republic, word spread that st Ambrose was pursuing the Jacobins with the scourge as he had once done to the Arians. The statue was then confined to the attic of the castle and returned to the church only after the Austrians had restored it.
- There was a miraculous episode even related to the death of Ambrose. a few months before Ambrose was finally confined to bed, he had been dictating the final draft of the commentary on Psalm XLIII to his stenographer Paulinus. Paulinus wrote, “ a fire like a small shield suddenly covered his head and, little by little entered his mouth... after this, his face turned white as snow, but soon regained its usual appearance.” His future biographer interpreted this prodigy to be the descent of the holy spirit on the bishop. according to the testimony of st Bassianus of Lodi, as reported by Paulinus, before he died, Ambrose saw Jesus coming toward him, then in the early hours of holy Saturday, April 4, 397, he took his last breath. His body was exhibited in the new basilica during the Easter vigil. The newly baptized said they saw him sitting on the chair placed in the apse in the baptistery (collective hallucination?). Paulinus recounts the healing of some possessed people and the assault of the faithful to come closer to the body with handkerchiefs and sashes to be purified by his holiness.
The iconography of a bellicose saint is common in the early depictions of st Ambrose. The scourge is a recurring attribute referring to the conflicts with the Arians, as is the saint on horseback with his sword drawn. In the nineteenth century the warlike image of st Ambrose was abandoned to reinstate his image of doctor of the church: a pious and clement man who excelled in oratory rather than war. The first iconography of st Ambrose holding the scourge in his hand appears in an eleventh century bas-relief, located in the atrium of the Basilica of st Ambrose. This iconography has been applied in several depictions through the centuries. There are numerous legendary episodes concerning Ambrose’s scourge. When he arrived in Milan as the newly appointed magistrate, Ambrose wanted to meet the executioner Ursone who, armed with a special whip made of several leather strips, extorted confessions from the defendants. Ambrose immediately fired Ursone and had the scourge consigned to him. Later, when he was appointed bishop by popular demand and in order to prove that he was unworthy of the office, he restored the use of unfair lashes. It so happened, however, that the scourge did not work on the first person he sentenced to be lashed. The scourge remains an attribute of unequivocal meaning, emphasizing the saint’s unwavering struggle against arian heresy.
Mosaic, 378, st Ambrose basilica of st Ambrose sacello of st vittore, Milan, Italy
This mosaic is probably the first representation of st Ambrose depicted without a halo and in the Roman attire of the period.
One of the attributes of saint Ambrose is honey, symbol of the sweetness of his sermons and writings. Ambrose’s literary production was strongly linked to the pastoral, often simply the result of a collection and a re-elaboration of his homilies, thereby maintaining a similar tone to his speech. Ambrose was called, “sweet as honey” because of his sweet and measured style both in his oratorical skills and his prose. A beehive often appears as an attribute, referring to the miracle of the swarm of bees that covered his face when he was an infant. There are representations of the saint depicted with books or in the act of writing at a desk, which are clear references to his position as a doctor of the church in Christian theology.
The most representative iconography of st Ambrose is the carolingian altar that the French bishop Angilberto had built by the master goldsmith and sculptor Vuolvino, in which the relics of the saint are protected.
Lorenzo Ghiberti created the panel depicting st. Ambrose of Milan for the North Door of the Baptistery in Florence in the early stages of the work, which was highly influenced by late Gothic style. His adherence to Gothic-international influence is evidenced in the accented decorations of the figures and draperies and in the rhythm of the composition that describes the scene. Ghiberti conformed to the international Gothic style, and at the same time he introduced spatial perspective innovations of the early Renaissance style. The other panels created in the early stages of the work are: agony in the garden, Jesus among the doctors, temptation of Christ, transfiguration, crucifixion, the last supper, the figures of the evangelists and the fathers of the church.
The saint is represented completely inscribed and centred in the quatrefoil frame. Saint Ambrose is sitting in his chair reading and studying intently; he is holding an open book that he his reading in one hand while he is opening another one, placed on top of other books on the ambo and lectern, to his right.
St. Ambrose is portrayed in his episcopal robes and mitre, while the saint's head is tilted, intent in his studies. The relief technique Ghiberti employed differs from other previous iconography in the perspective depth given to the figure. The bench is bas-relief, almost centred in foreshortened perspective, and then as the viewer slowly proceeds upward, the limbs and the head of the figure emerge. The elegant drapery of the saint’s garments wraps his body in refined folds, which are clearly Gothic, creating a dynamic effected contrasting the static figure of the saint concentrating on his studies. The lectern is also in perspective, perfectly balancing the composition, while the liturgical furnishings faithfully replicate the style of Ghiberti’s era.