the Basilica of St. Ambrose

http://www.basilicasantambrogio.it/History of Sant'Ambrogio
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Early Christian Basilica (4th century)

This basilica was erected at Milan by its great fourth-century bishop, St. Ambrose, and was consecrated in the year 386.

The basilica in its present form was constructed at four different periods, three of which fall within the ninth, the fourth in the twelfth, century. 

 The original edifice, like the great churches of Rome of the same epoch, belonged to the basilica type; it consisted of a central nave lighted from the clerestory, two side aisles, an apse, and an atrium. Investigations made in 1864 have established the fact that the nave and the aisles of the existing basilica correspond with those of the primitive church; the atrium, however, which dates from the ninth century, and two smaller apses, flanking a new central apse of greater depth than the original, were erected. The altar occupies about the same place as in the time of St. Ambrose, and the columns of the ciborium appear never to have been disturbed; they still rest on the original pavement.

The Ambrosian basilica, so called even during the life of its founder, was consecrated under circumstances which recall one of the most momentous episodes in the relations of Church and State in the fourth century. On the death of the Emperor Gratian (383), the Empress Justina, in the name of her son, the young Valentinian II, succeeded to the government of the Western half of the Empire. Justina was a zealous Arian, and Milan, where she took up her residence, was militantly orthodox. As the Arians at the time had no place of worship in Milan, the Empress demanded one from Ambrose; but the Bishop without a moment's hesitation refused to comply with her wish. For more than a year Justina and her advisors endeavoured to attain their object; but the firmness of Ambrose, who was supported by the Catholics of Milan, brought all their exertions to naught. The crisis in the unprecedented contest came during the Holy Week of 386. Ambrose received an order to depart from the city; he replied that he would not desert his flock unless forced to do so.

 He then proceeded to officiate as usual at the Holy Week services in the new basilica. While these functions progressed, the basilica was surrounded by troops, with the design of seizing the Bishop and the church at one stroke, but the people refused to yield. The doors were closed, and for several days St. Ambrose and the congregation endured a siege. The soldiers, however, were by no means hostile, and many of them joined in the singing of the hymns composed by the Bishop for the occasion. Under these circumstances, practically abandoned by the soldiers as well as by the people, the Empress was forced to yield, and peace was restored. 

After the final victory of Ambrose over the Arian faction at court, the people requested him to consecrate the basilica, which at its opening had only been dedicated. The Bishop replied that he would do so, could he obtain relics of martyrs. This obstacle was removed, St. Augustine informs us (Confess., IX, vii), by the discovery in the Naborian basilica of the relics of Sts. Gervasius and Protasius, the location of whose tombs was revealed to St. Ambrose in a vision. The translation of these martyrs' relics to the new basilica was made with the greatest solemnity, and served as the crowning triumph of the orthodox over the Arians. In the explorations of 1864 the sarcophagi which in the fourth century contained these relics, as well as the sarcophagus of St. Ambrose, were discovered in the confession of the basilica. The remains of all three saints were found in a porphyry sarcophagus to which they had been transferred, probably in the ninth century, by Archbishop Angilbert II (824-859).

The Basilica of St. Ambrose was begun by Bishop Ambrose himself around 385 and consecrated in 386. The church was built on a grand scale over an existing cemetery, next to the martyrium of St. Victor. Two local martyrs provided the necessary relics for the altar, and Ambrose was buried next to them after his death on April 4, 397.

Romanesque Basilica (11th century)

The basilica was rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the 11th century and this is the building that survives today. Historical records are lacking when it comes to an exact date, but scholars believe it was probably begun around 1080 based on the history of architecture and engineering in Lombardy.

Historical records indicate that the old nave was still in use in 1067 and the new one was being used by 1093. However, it seems the westernmost bay of the nave was not completed until the south tower was begun in 1123. The vault was probably not built until after the earthquake of 1117. The basilica was completed around 1128.



Note the two medieval bell towers left and right behind the church, which can be seen from the center of the square of St. Ambrogio.



View of the west facade from the great atrium or porch.

The Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio has an unusual exterior appearance, with an exceptionally large atrium stretching to the west and two towers of different heights. The atrium (dated by an inscription to 1098) is nearly as large as the church itself and makes an impressive sight after entering the small door at the west end.

It now shelters archaeological fragments and tombs under its arcaded gallery, which is decorated with 6th-century capitals.


The visible part of the west facade has six open arches under a peaked roof.
The south tower, known as the Monks' Tower, is quite simple in design and dates from the 10th


century. Its northern counterpart is the more beautiful Canons' Tower, which was begun in 1123, interrupted in 1128 and finished according to the original designs after 1181. Similarities have been noted with the belfry of the Basilica di San Francesco in Assisi. Throughout much of its history the basilica was served both by monks and canons, who did not always get along. The communities each had their own cloister as well as their own tower.


 Christ is shown with the Archangels Michael and Gabriel
the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius to either side of His throne..


Below are portraits of St Ambrose’s siblings, St Marcellina and Satyrus, and St Candida


From the atrium a narthex leads into nave, which has a high ribbed vault while the side aisles have groin vaulting. An octagonal lantern tower (built later) covers the transept crossing. There is a triforium but no clerestory (upper level with windows), so the nave would have been very dark before the lantern tower was added. It still is quite dark today.

The interior of the basilica is absolutely overflowing with medieval art, including: many Romanesque carved capitals, a 4th-century sarcophagus carved with biblical scenes (possibly suggested by Ambrose himself), a 9th-century silver altar, and a 10th-century canopy over the altar. Near the entrance on the right side of the nave is the "Serpent Column": a 10th-century Byzantine bronze serpent placed atop a short column.

Ambo (12th century)

On the north side of the nave stands a large marble ambo, which was made between 1130 and 1143 and reconstructed after the roof collapsed in 1196. The ambo is a type of pulpit and was used primarily for Gospel readings by the canons and monks. Supported by slender ancient columns, it was built on top of the 4th-centurySarcophagus of Stilichone (see below).

The fine Lombard Romanesque reliefs decorating the ambo are based on St. Ambrose's writings and center around the themes of sin and redemption. The north side shows a banquet, which represents either the Last Supper or the agape meal celebrated by early Christians every Sunday. The atlas figure on the southwest corner probably represents Daniel in the Lions' Den. Reliefs in the lunettes depict the Magi before Herod; the Adoration of the Magi; the Labor of Adam and Eve; and two birds drinking from a cup representing eternal life.

On the side facing the nave, there are two gilded copper sculptureswhich were probably attached to an earlier ambo. They date from the early 8th century and are considered magnificent examples of medieval metallurgy. They depict an eagle, representing St. John the Evangelist, and an angel, representing St. Matthew the Evangelist. The other two evangelists have been lost. The eagle may have functioned also as a book rest, just as many modern lecterns are in the shape of eagles.

Sarcophagus of Stilichone (4th century)

The Sarcophagus of Stililchone is a great treasurenot only is it a magnificent work of Early Christian art, it is one of the few surviving elements from Ambrose's original basilica. It still stands in the exact same place it has been since it was carved in 385 ADthe ambo was built around it. Moreover, it was carved during Ambrose's lifetime and its themes may have been suggested by the bishop himself.

The tomb was probably commissioned by and for a high military official, who appears with his wife on the north side of the sarcophagus and again in a roundel on the lid. Their identities remain unknown; the name of the sarcophagus dates from the 18th century and is based on an erroneous tradition that it was made for Stilichone, a general who died in 408 in the service of Emperor Honorius.

The sculptures on the sarcophagus are of exceptional quality, indicating they were carved by a Roman artist. The style of the work is called a "city gate sarcophagus" because of the prominent city walls and gates within the scenes. The south side (facing the nave) depicts the Traditio Legis, in which Christ hands the keys of Heaven to St. Peter. The other side shows Christ teaching the apostles, with the kneeling portraits of the patrons. The short sides have scenes from the Old Testament.

Sarcophagus of Stilicon


Golden Altar (9th century) and Ciborium (10th century)











wpsEF9BThe altar was made between 825 and 859 by a sculptor named Vuolvino; the side facing the people is gold, that facing the apse is silver..The altar is sheltered by a canopy (known as a ciborium or baldacchino) made of four ancient columns and decorated with 10th-century stucco reliefs. a

It depicts the Life of Christ is in gold leaf on the front and the Life of St Ambrose in gilded silver on the back.


The central panel shows Christ in glory
 surrounded by the symbols of the Evangelists and the Twelve Apostles.
Twelve episodes of the life of Christ are shown to either side.


The panel of the side facing the apse. 
Archangels Michael and Gabriel in the upper circles.
 In the lower two circles we have St Ambrose crowns the abbot of the Basilica, Angeliberto, who presents the altar to him (left), and the sculptor Vuolvino (right).
Twelve episodes of the life of St Ambrose are shown on either side.

Honored as a saint, Saint Marcellina (c. 327 – 397) was buried in the crypt under the altar of the Ambrosian Basilica in Milan.

Detail of 10th-century relief on the ciborium, showing Christ giving a book to Paul and keys to Peter     

Apse mosaic (9th12th century)



Apse mosaic with ciborium
(a receptacle shaped like a shrine or a cup with an arched cover,for the reservation of the Eucharist.) 

The central scene of the apse mosaic has a late Byzantine layout and probably dates from the early 1200s. The side scenes are probably even earlier - dating from early 9th century in the Carolingian era. These connect St. Ambrose and the city of Milan (Mediolanum) with St. Martin and the city of Tours (Turonica). Both bishops were staunch opponents of the Arian heresy.

St. Ambrose adorned the walls of his basilica with frescoes representing various scenes from the Old and New Testament. From the distich inscriptions, composed by St. Ambrose, accompanying each group, we learn what subjects were depicted.

Old Testament
Noah, the ark, and the dove recalled a favorite subject of the catacombs, though the symbolic meaning was somewhat different.
Abraham was represented contemplating the stars, less numerous than his posterity were destined to be;
the same patriarch with Sara, in another scene, was acting as host to Angels.
Isaac and Rebecca,
two scenes from the life of Jacob,
and two from that of Joseph

The New Testament 
the Annunciation,
the conversion of Zaccheus,
the Haemorrhoissa,
the Transfiguration,
and St. John, reclining on the breast of Our Saviour.

The altar of the basilica, erected in the first half of the ninth century,. The famous brazen serpent stands on a column in the nave, on the left, and is balanced by a cross on the right. This was brought from Constantinople about the year 1001, by Archbishop Arnolf, and placed in the Ambrosian basilica under the supposition that it was the brazen serpent erected in the desert by Moses. Archaeologists regard it as very probably a pagan emblem of Esculapius.

Crypt of the saints:
Skeleton of Bishop Ambrose (d. 397) on display in the crypt of Sant'Ambrogio Basilica, Milan.     

The remains of Ambrose itself was laid besides the remnants of the earlier two martyrs Sts. Gervasius and Protasius. His skeleton is glazed with a protective coating and dressed in full bishop's finery, complete with white mitre and dainty slippers.


                                    Martyrs Sts. Gervasius, Protasius and Ambrosse

The accompanying saints are 3rd-century martyrs who were disinterred by Ambrose for the altar of his new basilica. They originally were buried in the nearby Chapel of Sts. Nabore and Felice (now destroyed). In the year 835 the 

wpsEFD1Archbishop of Milan, Angilbert II., caused a large porphyry sarcophagus to be made in which he laid the body of St. Ambrose between the other two under the altar.The crypt was built in the late 10th century as part of major renovations in the east end of the basilica. The great silver urn enclosing the relics dates from 1897. 

Right-side nave of Sant'Ambrogio basilica in Milan, Italy. Saint Bartholomew and Saint Satyrus baroque-style chapel. It preserves the relics of Satyrus.


Ambo (Pulpit)












 The Ambo (Pulpit)












Saint Ambrose and his sister, Saint Marcellina.
Baroque relief above the entrance to the crypt of Sant'Ambrogio basilica. 
 Picture by Giovanni Dall'Orto, April 25 2007




Key events during the life of
Ambrose of Milan:




Born in Germany to Christian parents.


Excelled at studies of literature, law, and rhetoric.


Promoted to consular prefect of Liguria, with his office in Milan.


Bishop of Milan dies. Ambrose was proclaimed bishop by popular demand, though he was not yet baptized.


Gave away all riches, and whole-heartedly devoted himself to the service of the Church.


Persuaded Emperor Gratian to outlaw all heresy in the Western empire.


Presided at the synod of Aquileia, Arian bishops were deposed fron their office.


Refused request of Emperor Valentinian II for use of churches for Arian services.


St. Augustine is baptized as Christian after being influenced by Ambrose.


Excommunicated Emperor Theodosius after the massacre of 7000 Thessalonians.


Encouraged the Christian Emperor Valentinian II to suppress pagan worship.


Valentinian II is murdered and Eugenius usurps throne. Ambrose flees from Milan.


After Theodosius defeats Eugenius, Ambrose requests pardon for all supports of his rival.



Ambrose dies, two years after death of Theodosius


NPNF210. Ambrose: Selected Works and Letters
Philip Schaff


340. Birth of St. Ambrose (probably at Treves). youngest son of Arnbrose, Prefect of the Gauls.

     Constantine II. killed at Aquileia.
     Death of Eusebius.


341. Seventh Council of Antioch.
     Second exile of St. Athanasius.

343. Photinus begins teaching his heresy.

347. Birth of St. John Chrysostom.
     Council of Sardica. St. Athanasius restored.

348. Birth of Prudentius the Christian poet.

349. Synod of Sirmium against Photinus.

350. Death of the Emperor Constans.
     St. Hilary, Bishop of Poitiers.
     Magnentius proclaimed Emperor of the West.

351. Photinus condemned by a semi-Arian synod.

352. Liberius, Pope in succession to Julius.

353-4. About this date St. Ambrose is taken by his mother to live at Rome, where his sister

      Mlarcellina received the veil at the hands ofLibel'ius at Christmas. either AD. 353.
       or more probably 354. Suicide of Magnentius the Emperor.

354. Birth of St. Augustine. Death of the Emperor Gallus.

355. Liberius the Pope, Dionysius, Bishop of Milan, and Lucifer, Bishop ofCagliari, banished

     by an Arian synod at Milan. Third exile ofSt. Athanasius.

356. Banishment of St. Hilary ofPoitiers.

357. L.iberius subscribes (as the Arians say) an Aiian Creed, and returns to Rome .\ || 358.

359. Council of Ari.mi.nu.m. Macedonius of Constantinople deposed.

     Eudoirius consecrated Bishop.

361. Julian Emperor.

362. Fourth exile of St. Athanasius.

363. Death ofthe Emperor Julian. St.

     Athanasius restored.

     Felix Pope.

364. Death ofthe Emperor Jovian.

     Valentinian and Valens Emperors.

366. Death ofLiberius in September.

     Dainasus elected in his place, but the see is also claimed by Ursinus.

367. Gratian, though only a boy, declared Augustus by his father Valentiruan.

368-374. Successful career of St. Ambrose in legal business and as "consular."

370. St. Basil, Bishop oflflasarea.

372. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Bishop of Susium.

373. Death of St. Athanasius.

374. Death of Auxentius, the Arian Bishop of Milan, and election of St. Ambrose, though still only a catechumen, by acclamation. St. Martin Bishop of Tours.

374--5. St. Ambrose sends adeputation of clerics to St. Basilio ask for the body of St. Dionysius,
       late Catholic Bishop of Milan. {St Basil, Ep. 193.]

375. Death of Valentinian in November. His son Valenttnian is admitted by Gratian to be Emperor of 
    the East, though only four years old.

377. St. Ambrose writes the three books, , De Virginibus; one, De Viduis;
    which is followed by the book, De Virginitate. 

378. The first two books, De Fido, written at the request of Gratian, who was setting out to the relief' of'
     Valens against the Goths. Valens is overcome and killed at Adrianople.
     Many Christians having been made captives, St. Ambrose sells Church plate to redeem them.

379. Theodosius is proclaimed Augustus.
     Death of St. Basrl and of St. Ephrem Syrian.
     Gratian, on his way back fioni Thrace, requests St.
     Ambrose to come ho meet him and receives the first two books ofthe treatise De Fido, and asks    
     for a further one of the Holy Spirit; the latter was written two years later.
      Death of Satyrus, brother of St. Ambrose.
      The two treatises on his death written.

379-80. Famine in Ronle.—See De Off. III. 46–48.

380. Baptism of Theodosius at Thessalonica.  Books III.–V. of the De Fide written about this time. 
    The basilica which had been sequestered by Gratian is restored to the Church.

380. Synod at Rome under Darnascus at which St. Ambrose was present.
     Probably in the same year St. Ambrose consecrated Anernius Bishop ofSirmium in spite of
     Arian opposition.

381. Death at Constantinople of Athanaricus, leader ofthe Goths.
     The three book, De Spfritu Saracto, rrritten. Death of Peter, Bishop ofAlexandria.
     The (Ecumenical Council of Constantinople commences under the presidency of Meletius of
     Antioch. Also at Aquilei a council, at which St. Ambrose took a leading part, was held against the    
     heretics Palladius and Secundianus . An account is given ofthe proceedings in Epistles 9-12.

381-2. St. Ambrose presides over a council of ltalian bishops to talce into consideration the troubles at
      Antioch and Constantinople.
      Epistles 13, to Theodosius, and 14, his reply, state the proceedings.
      Theodosius summoned a council to consider the same rnatters at Constantinople.

382. Gratian orders the removal ofthe image of Victory from the forum at Rome. [Ep. 1118.]

     Acholius, Bishop ofThessalonica, dies and is succeeded by Anystus.

383. TheThe Priscillianists endeavour in vain to gain Damasus and St. Ambrose to their side by
     rneans of a visit to Rome and Milan.
     On the 25th of August Gratian is assassinated at Lyons by the instigation of Maximus.
     A great dearth at Rome. [De Off. III. 7, 49; Ep. 18.]

383-4. First legation of St. Ambrose to Maxinius on behalf of Justina the Empress and her son

      V’alentinian II.

384. The memorial of Symmachus the prefect ofthe city to Valentinian, requesting the restoration

    of the Altar of Victory, and the reply of St. Ambrose. [Ep. ll‘, 18.] A synod at Bordeaux against

    the Priscillianists. Death of Damasus, who is succeeded by Siricius as Pope.

385. Priscillian and his companions are condemned to death at Treves at the instigation of the

     Spanish Bishops Idacius and Itliacius.
     The lthacians consecrate Felix as Bishop. [Ep. 41-51.}
     The persecution at Milan of Catholics by Justina in Holy Week. [Ep. 20.]
     The law of Valentinian II., granting Arians equal rights with Catholics.
     Auxentius claims the see of Milan.
     [Sermon against Auxentius and Ep. 21.]
     The deposit which a widow had entrusted to the Church at Trent having been carried off by   
      imperial order, St. Ambrose succeeds in procuring its restitution. [De Off. II. 29, 150, 151.]
      New basilica at Milan consecrated.

386. Finding of the bodies of St. Gervasius and Protasrus [Ep. 11].
     Epistle 23 to the bishops of the province of AEmilia on the right day for the observance of Easter.

386-7. The exposition of the Gospel according to St. Luke written.

387‘. Baptism of St. Augustine at Milan by St. Ambrose at Trèves.
     Second mission ofSt. Ambrose to Maximus. [Ep. 14.]
     Expulsion of St. Ambrose from Treves because of his refusal too communicate with the murderer  
     of his sovereign.
     In the later part of the year Maximus crosses into Italy and enters Milan.

388. At Constantinople the Arians destroy the residence of the Catholic Bishop Nectarius.
    [Ep.40, § 13.]
    Death of Justina, and conversion of Valentinian ll. by Theodosius.
    Theodosius marches against Maximus, who is everywhere defeated [Ep. 40, § 13], and executed  
    at Aquileia.
    THird application concerning the Altar of Victory.

390. The excessive cruelty with which Theodosius punished a sedition at Thessalonica brought

     on him exclusion from communion, and a severe rebuke at the hands of St. Ambrose.
     The Emperor's penitence and readmission to communion.
     A synod is held at Milan againm the lthacian heretics, and Felix, Bishop of Treves. flip. 51.]

381-2. The deputation of part of the Roman Senate to Valentinian to request the restoration of

      the Altar of Victory in the Fonini. [Ep. ST, § 5.]
      The treatise De institutione Virginis, written about this time, as also, De Officiis.

382. Valentinlan II. killed at Vienne by Arrbogastes [Ep. 53, § 2; De ob. Valem. 25 PR].
    His body is brought to Milan.
    The address, Consolatio de ob. Val. A further delegation from the Senate is sent to Eugenius 
     respecting the Altar of Victory [E.p. 57, §a fl‘.].

383. On the arrival of Eugenius at Milan St. Ambrose leaves the city for Bonornia Faventia and

    Florence. The letters to Eugenius and Sabinus written about this time.


393-4. At Florence St. Ambrose dedicates a basilica, in which he deposits the bodies of the martyrs
      Vitalis and Aglicoia, which he had brought from Bornonia.
      His address on this occasion was that which is inscribed, Exhortatio Virginitatis.
      He writes Ep.59.

394. Theodosius sets out from Constantinople against Eugenius.
     About the begining of August St. Ambrose returns to Milian.
     Eugenius defeated by Theodosius and slain, Sept. 6.
     St. Ambrose intercedes and obtains pardon for the followers of Eugenius.
     After this St. Ambrose writes the Enarraiiones on Psalms 35-40 and Ep. 61, 62..

395. Death of Theodosius at Milan.
     St. Ambrose’s oration  De obitu Theodosi. Hornorius and Arcadius Emperors.
     St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo.
     Death of Rufinus.

396. Dissensions at Vercellæ, the occasion of writing Ep. 63, and of a visit to that Church.

397. St. Ambrose consecrates a bishop for Continuum, and shortly after falls ill.
     He commenced the commentary on Psalm 43, which he left unfinished; and died in the night  
     between Good Friday and Easter Eve, having recommended Simplicianus as his successor.









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