ambro.jpg
5th century mosaic of Ambrose as an imperial official. This portrait is considered a realistic one. St. Ambrose’s basilica, Milan, Italy.

On November 30th 374 AD, the atmosphere was extremely tense in the city of Medionalum (modern day Milan). Arian archbishop Auxentius had just died and the city had to nominate his successor. The election occurred in an unidentified church of the city. There, the citizens, divided between the Arian and the Nicene creeds, were struggling to find common ground, while a high ranking imperial official, a man named Ambrose, listened carefully to their speeches. After listening to their reasons, Ambrose made a speech aimed at restoring harmony between the two factions. While talking, a man in the crowd shouted: “Ambrose for bishop!”. Soon afterwards, the whole crowd started shouting: “Ambrose for bishop!”. This is how Ambrose, an important player at the court of emperor Valentinian I, became Archbishop of one of the most important cities of the Roman West. However, he never wanted to pursue a career in the church. Although a Nicene Christian, he was trained to become an imperial civil administrator, not a member of the clergy. With time however, Ambrose, a strong personality with impressive rhetorical skills,  learned how to act as a successful religious figure and even became the tutor of the emperor’s son, Gratian. Ambrose was elected bishop during a time in which the power of the Roman state in the West was waning and the Christian church was gradually taking control over secular matters. As a bishop, Ambrose was an enemy to Arian Christians, deemed as heretics at the council of Nicaea in 325 AD. The emperor’s wife, Giustina, however, was among the Arian faction. After the death of Valentinian I in 375 AD, Ambrose therefore entered into a fierce contrast with the imperial court, which was dominated by Arian christians. During this period, Ambrose built four basilicas in the city in order to strengthen his position: the basilica martyrum, the basilica apostolorum, the basilica virginum and the basilica prophetarum. He also clashed with a pagan aristocrat, Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, who was a stern supporter of the traditional politeistic roman religion. The Archbishop eventually won both encounters, risking his own life during an Arian attack and becoming one of the most powerful men in Milan. He went as far as excommunicating emperor Theodosius I after the massacre of Thessalonica, during which the emperor ordered the slaughter of 7.000 citizens. This demonstrated his enormous personal power and extreme self confidence. Ambrose introduced a new form of liturgical chant, the Canto Ambrosiano, known for its collective singing. He was one of the first Christian religious figures to hold significant secular power. Currently, he is the patron saint of Milan. He is displayed on the first Gonfalone of the same city.

absi
Beautiful absidal mosaic of St. Ambrose’s basilica. St. Ambrose’s basilica, Milan, Italy.