Wednesday, December 07, 2022

The Basilica of St Ambrose in Milan

St Ambrose of Milan died on April 4, 397, which was Holy Saturday of that year. Since the date of his death very frequently occurs in either Holy Week or the Octave of Easter, his principal feast day is kept in both the Roman and Ambrosian Rites on December 7th, the day of his episcopal ordination. However, the church of Milan also traditionally keeps a commemoration of his falling asleep in the Lord, which is fixed to the Thursday within the octave of Easter.

During his episcopacy, St Ambrose had discovered the relics of two Milanese martyrs, the brothers Ss Gervase and Protase, and constructed a basilica to house their remains. He himself was buried in this church; in the 9th century, his relics and those of the two martyrs were placed in a large porphyry sarcophagus in a crypt beneath the main altar. The sarcophagus itself was actually lost for a time, after sinking partly beneath the water-table, (porphyry is an incredibly heavy kind of Egyptian granite), and rediscovered only in the 1880s; another feast on the Ambrosian Calendar commemorates this rediscovery on May 14th.

To mark his feast day, here are some pictures of the basilica from our Ambrosian correspondent, Nicola de’ Grandi. The 9th century apsidal mosaic was badly damaged by a bomb during World War II, but expertly reconstructed. Christ is shown with the Archangels Michael and Gabriel and 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.

To either side are shown the two parts of a famous legend of St Ambrose, namely, that he once fell into a deep sleep for several hours during services in church, and on waking, told his clergy that he had been present for the funeral of St Martin in the city of Tour. (St Martin actually died in the same year as St Ambrose, but 7 months later.)
The marble throne in the apse, believed to be at least old enough to be the very one used by St Ambrose himself when celebrating in this basilica.

The 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 central panel shows Christ in glory, surrounded by the symbols of the Evangelists and the Twelve Apostles. Twelve episodes of His life are shown to either side.
The central panel of the side facing the apse shows the Archangels Michael and Gabriel in the upper circles; in the lower ones, 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 to either side.
The Ordination of St Ambrose
Under an ambo in the nave is a large sarcophagus of the later 4th century, traditionally called the Sarcophagus of Silicho, a Roman general who died in 408 A.D. On this side, a young and beardless Christ is represented on a throne surrounded by the Apostles.
On the side are represented the Ascent of the Prophet Elijah (below), and above, the Infant Christ with the ox and the donkey to either side of Him.
As was commonly the case in the Middle Ages, a bronze fixture in the form of an eagle is mounted onto the ambo to hold books; this was in fact so common a custom that ambos are often called by the Latin word for eagle, aquila, in liturgical books.

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