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Ambrose was born at Milan, and was the son of the Praetorian Prefect of Gaul. He has two older siblings, Satyrus and Marcellina. The latter founded a religious community in Rome, where Sant'Ambrogio della Massima lies today. As a member of the upper classes, it was natural that he studied Greek, rhetoric and poetry. He became an advocate, and in 370 he was appointed Governor of Aemilia and Liguria, with his seat at Milan.
When the Arian Bishop of Milan, Auxentius, died in 374, Ambrose worked for a peaceful election of his successor. At that time, he was not even baptized, and his concern for peace in the Church probably stemmed from practical considerations - it made his job as governor easier. But during his speech to the assembly, a voice cried out: «Ambrose for bishop». The whole crowd took up the slogan, and within a week he had been baptized and consecrated as Bishop of Milan.
Ambrose had always worked hard in all his tasks, and he continued this as bishop. But he combined it with accessibility for all. Milan was at the time the administrative capital of the Western Roman Empire, and the city's bishop was therefore an important figure not only in the Church, but also in national and international politics.
In 377, he wrote On the faith, a warning against Arianism to the young Emperor Gratian. The emperor's uncle, Valens, was a protector of the Arianist heresy. After the murder of Gratian, Ambrose persuaded Emperor Maximus to take only part of the empire, and leave the rest for Valentinian II.
When pagans tried to restore the cult of Victory in Milan, Ambrose interceded and managed to stop them. He also refused to let Arians worship in the cathedral. As there were several Arians at court, he had resourceful enemies, and at one time he was besieged in a church because of his opposition to Arianism. He is considered one of the foremost champions of Nicene orthodoxy against Arian heresy.
He was never afraid to reprove the emperor when atrocities were committed, such as after Emperor Theodosius' massacre of thousands of men, women and children at Thessalonica. The emperor had to do public penance. Nor did he hesitate to remind Emperor Valentinian that the emperor was in the church, not above it.
He is known to have written hymns and to have taught his flock to sing them. Some of the are preserved in the Roman Breviary. A rite known as the Ambrosian Rite has been preserved and may still be used in Milanese churches. There is also a form of chant known as the Ambrosian chant. Neither the chant nor the rite can be directly traced to St Ambrose, but there is reason to believe that he at least provided inspiration for them.
His body was translated to the high altar of the cathedral at Milan as late as 835, but his cult is ancient. He is considered one of the four Western Doctors of the Church, with Sts Jerome, Augustine and Gregory.
In art, he is usually shown in episcopal vestments. His main attributes are a scourge, symbolizing the penance imposed on the emperor, or a beehive, symbolizing his eloquence and referring to a story saying that bees deposited his theological knowledge on his lips while he slept. He is also sometimes shown writing, and in those depictions there is often an ox beside him. The ox is the symbol of St Luke the Evangelist, and this refers to St Ambrose's Commentaries to the Gospel of St Luke.
Churches in Rome connected to St AmbroseEdit
- Santa Maria degli Angeli (in the Chapel of Relics)