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from issue no. 01/02 - 2006

Ambrose is here with his favorite friends

It was one of the four Basilicas with which he endowed his Milan. But this was “his” Basilica, where he said mass and where he wanted to be buried between Gervasius and Protase the two martyrs whose remains he had recovered.

by Giuseppe Frangi

«Because I do not deserve to be a martyr, I got for you these martyrs». It was the 20 June of the year 386, a Saturday. And Ambrose, Bishop of Milan, from the pulpit of the basilica that they popularly called “Ambrosian” («quam appellant ambrosianum», he writes in a letter to his sister Marcellina) and which was officially the Basilica of Martyrs, announced the consecration of that altar. Underneath the table in fact had just been laid the relics of the saints Gervasius and Protase, found three days previously, a few hundred meters from the church.
There is nothing legendary about the event. Ambrose, bishop of Milan since 374, had immediately undertaken the construction of large basilicas on the roads leading into Milan, adapting his city of adoption on the pattern of his city of origin, Rome. The Basilica Apostolorum was in fact on the Via Romana, the Basilica Virginum (the last of the series, today Saint Simplician) on the road to Como; the Basilica Salvatoris or of Saint Dionysus near the eastern gate (it doesn’t exist anymore today). And finally, precisely, the Basilica Martyrum near Porta Vercellina. Each one was constructed on a cemetery area, where generations of Christians were already buried. For example, a few steps from the Basilica Ambrosiana, there was the small chapel that contained the remains of Saint Victor, where Ambrose himself, in 378, had laid the body of beloved Brother Satyrus. That chapel is still survived, even if today it is all of a piece with the basilica itself.
A little further over, where the police barracks is today, there was instead the church that conserved the venerated bodies of Saints Nabor and Felix. Excavating right there in front, Ambrose had found the remains of Gervasius and Protase. He recounts the episode meticulously in Epistola XXII to his sister Marcellina, who in those months was absent from Milan. «I had just performed the dedication of a basilica [the Basilica Martyrum, ed.] when many began to say: “Will you do as you did for the dedication of the basilica of Porta Romana?” [the Basilica Apostolorum, ed.]. and I replied: “Certainly if I find the relics of martyrs”… The Lord granted me the favor. In fact, even though the clergy showed a certain apprehension, I had the stones removed from the ground that stretched in front of the chapel of Saints Nabor and Felix. I found unequivocal traces in that place… The holy martyrs began to emerge from the ground in such a way that, while we remained in silence, it was possible to bring the coffin to the surface and it could be laid on the floor. Inside we found two men of enormous stature… the bones were intact… They smelled entirely of perfumes».
Ambrose is precise in the details: just a month before, 9 May of that year 386, he had in fact placed under the high altar of the Basilica of Porta Romana the relics of the three apostles, Andrew, John and Thomas. Today this same basilica, still in existence, is better known as that of Saint Nazarus, from the name of the martyr whom Ambrose buried there in 395.
«Piae latebant ostiae», Ambrose again writes in the hymn dedicated to the finding of Gervasius and Protase. But «latere sanguis non potest qui clamat ad Deum patrem». And the use of that noun “ostiae” explains the assimilation between the remains of those bodies and the place – the altar – where the sacrifice of Christ is fulfilled. «He who died for all, is on the altar; these who were ransomed by his passion, will be under the altar», he writes again to his sister Marcellina.

Ambrose’s haste
Probably, at that moment, the building of the church was not yet completely finished. Ambrose was a no-nonsense man, who never delayed about things. He was perhaps the man who counted most, in that moment of history, in the entire Roman Empire. He had had tumultuous relations with more than one emperor, with lawsuits that almost always ended in his favor. But precisely because of this, as Richard Krautheimer documents in that extraordinary book that Three Christian Capitals is, Ambrose could not count on the resources of the imperial coffers. His basilicas, thus, from the point of view of construction look spartan: the foundations are of smoothed river stones, with high couches of mortar and patched in herring-bone pattern. Krautheimer concludes: «In my view, the low quality of the technique in the Ambrosian churches was the result of less generous financial support and greater haste in the building. Ambrose was in a great hurry, and the means at his disposal, though ample, were not unlimited».
The complete opposite however occurred with the construction of the other great Milanese basilica, later dedicated to Saint Laurence, which at the instigation of the mother empress Justina was built precisely in those years near the imperial palace, with the idea of handing it to the Arians. Ambrose opposed it and in the end was successful, having the all people on his side. On Thursday 2 April 386, learning that the imperial guards had lifted the siege of the Basilica Porziana (as San Lorenzo was then called), the bishop wrote to his sister: «What then was the happiness of all the people, what the applause of the whole population, what the gratitude!». Two months afterwards the same people would follow breathlessly the recovery of the remains of Gervasius and Protase, as already related. For Ambrose it was victory over the ambitions of the Empire and the Arians.

The martyr friends
Not much remains of the Basilica of Ambrose, which was 53 meters long and 26 wide and ran on a slightly different line to the present one. The bishop was buried there by Simplician, his successor, in 397 (he often said that a priest must be buried where he had celebrated mass). A few months afterwards he would be followed by his adored sister Marcellina, older than him by ten years, for whom Ambrose had written the texts dedicated to virginity. A stone in the crypt recalls the place where she was found, at the end of 1700, «ad pedem Ambrosii ad latus Satyri fratris». Today she reposes in the third chapel of the right nave, within a cold neoclassical urn. Brother Satyrus is in the chapel that precedes it, between two large canvases by Tiepolo. Ambrose instead remained there where he wanted to be. For centuries his body was kept in a large sarcophagus of red porphyry, that rested on two empty tombs and is still visible in the crypt. On 8 August 1871 the sarcophagus was opened: it contained the remains of the three saints side by side. Ambrose lay between Gervasius and Protase. The bodies are kept today in the same arrangement in the glass case directly under the altar: Gervasius and Protase wear red dalmatics and hold the palm of martyrdom in their hands. Ambrose instead wears a solemn white pontifical habit.

His portrait
We also see him wearing white in the extraordinary mosaic in the chapel of Saint Victor fashioned shortly after his death. There, too, he is shown between the two martyr “friends”, while on the other side other familiar presences face him: Nabor, Felix and Maternus. The portrait created by the anonymous mosaicist is very credible and realistic: Ambrose has a short beard that frames a thin face, a barely suggested receding hairline, two notable ears, and a look thoughtful but at the same time open to reality. The large feet and the white tunic, almost that of an ancient Roman senator, restore him to us as a concrete figure, planted firmly in touch with reality.
We find Ambrose in civilian clothes in the reliefs on the ciborium that rises in the heart of the presbytery, and therefore vertically above the container of the relics kept in the crypt. It dates from the end of the millennium and on the side toward the apse it portrays the saint, again firmly planted on large feet. Despite the hieratic pose, the scene is a synthesis of events: Gervasius and Protase are seen on the sides bringing into Ambrose’s presence, with protective gestures, two figures wearing scapular and cowl. The one on the left is the Abbot Gaudentius who offers the little model of the ciborium to the saint. The monk on the right instead has brought his hands together in a gesture between expectation and applause. Above, where the pediment draws narrows, a child with a halo curiously appears: it is the Son with human features. But according to one interpretation it could be the child who in the midst of the crowd in 374, launched the cry, then taken up by all the faithful: «Ambrose for bishop».

The most precious treasure
The Basilica’s most splendid possession stands beneath the ciborium, and it is perhaps one of the most extraordinary gems in the whole of Christian history. It is the golden altar commissioned by Archbishop Angilbert II in the Carolingian period from a master who must certainly have been famous, given the space he reserved for himself in the reliefs: Vuolvinius. Behind the altar there is a panel that reveals the function for which it was conceived: it was in fact intended to contain the coffin with the bodies of the three saints, thus completely fulfilling Ambrose’s wish. The writing framing the reliefs clearly states the intent of Angilbert II: «Thesauro tamen haec cuncto potiore metallo ossibus interius pollet donata sacratis»; «But within it has a treasure more precious than all the metals, because it had the sacred bones in gift». In reality the bodies remained until the last century in the large red porphyry coffin still in the crypt and it is not known why the altar instead remained empty.
The reliefs are embossed sheets. On the front the panels portray the life of Christ, on the sides are the glories of the Milanese Church, while on the back, on the other hand, the life of Ambrose is recounted in detail on silver sheets with mercury gilding. It is an excited account, not lacking in dramatic shifts, as in the beautiful episode in which Ambrose, fleeing Milan to avoid investiture as bishop, is practically “harpooned” by the hand of God and is almost in danger of falling from the shying horse. A scene that could almost have as a caption the stupendous summary of his own story as written by Ambrose between 387 and 390 in De Paenitentia : «It will be said: here is one who was not nourished in the bosom of the Church… taken from the courts and removed from the vanities of this age, from the voice of the praetor he passed to the song of the psalmist, not through his own capacities but through the grace of Christ he is now in the priesthood… Preserve, Lord, your gift, protect it, you who gave it to him who fled it. Because I knew I was unworthy to be called bishop. Through the grace of God, however, I am what I am, I am the lowest among the bishops, the lowest in dignity. But because I too undertook some exertion for your Church, you take care of the fruit; when lost, you called me to the episcopate, as bishop do not allow me to lose myself».

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