Milan: Sant’Ambrogio

The Sant'Ambrogio and Anspert's atrium.

The Sant’Ambrogio and Anspert’s atrium.

The Sant’Ambrogio is one of the oldest and most important churches in Milan. Built between 379 and 386 by Saint Ambrosius (Anglicised as Ambrose; ca. 340-397) and later named after him, the church is even older than the San Lorenzo Maggiore. According to a brochure provided by the church itself, “during Lent of 387 a restless young North African was baptized here in Milan precisely by Ambrose, after longs talks that certainly took place in this basilica”. This restless young North African was of course none other than Augustinus of Hippo (Augustine in modern English; 354-430), who went on to become an important theologian and – together with Ambrosius – one of the original Doctors of the Church. The Sant’Ambrogio is a church of enormous spiritual importance. It has Saint Ambrosius’ relics, as well as those of Gervasius and Protasius, all patron saints of Milan. The church is a very popular wedding location.

The "Colonna del Diavolo". Satan tried to tempt Ambrosius into forsaking his duties as bishop. Ambrosius refused and hit Satan, whose horns got stuck in the column. Hence the two holes near the bottom.

The “Colonna del Diavolo”. Satan tried to tempt Ambrosius into forsaking his duties as bishop. Ambrosius refused and hit Satan, whose horns got stuck in the column. Hence the two holes near the bottom.

Early history

According to tradition, Saint Ambrosius founded four Christian churches in Milan, all outside the Roman walls of the city. One was the Basilica Martyrum – basilica of the martyrs – which was renamed Sant’Ambrogio in honour of Ambrosius after his death. The principal martyrs venerated here were the aforementioned Gervasius and Protasius. They were the sons of one Saint Vitalis, who according to tradition was martyred in Ravenna. The famous San Vitale church in Ravenna is dedicated to him. Ambrosius had his Basilica Martyrum built on the grounds of an ancient cemetery. Cemeteries were always located outside cities, for reasons of hygiene and religion, and there is no reason to assume that this was an exclusively Christian cemetery. It was probably much like the Ager Vaticanus in Rome, a collection of pagan and Christian tombs.

The other Ambrosian churches in Milan were the Basilica Virginum in the north, the Basilica Apostolorum in the south and the Basilica Prophetarum in the east. The first church is now called the San Simpliciano, named after Ambrosius’ successor as bishop of Milan, Simplicianus. The second became known as the San Nazaro in Brolo, the third as the San Dionigi, but it was demolished in 1783. It could be found in what are now the Giardini Pubblici, Milan’s oldest park. There is some doubt about whether the San Dionigi was really commissioned by Ambrosius himself. It was possibly not even built in the fourth century. Nevertheless, if you connect the four churches – the Sant’Ambrogio to the San Dionigi and the San Simpliciano to the San Nazaro – you get a primitive cross, and it is not completely crazy to assume that this was intentional.

Ornate capital in the atrium.

Later history

Tomb of Pietro Candido Decembrio.

Tomb of Pietro Candido Decembrio.

The church was expanded in the eighth century by the community of Benedictine monks that had been established next door. It was completely rebuilt in the Lombard Romanesque style during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The two towers flanking the hut-shaped facade are of uneven height. This is apparently the result of a rivalry between the two religious communities that made use of the church. The tower on the right is called the Campanile dei Monaci and is named after the monks whose monastery was located next to the church. This tower is the oldest of the two, dating back to the eighth century. The tower on the left was built in the twelfth century, but the two top floors were only added in the nineteenth century. It is called the Campanile dei Canonici, after a community of Canons that was present here.

In 1492, the famous architect Donato Bramante was commissioned by the monks to renovate and rebuild their cloisters. Bramante (1444-1514) is best known for being the original architect of the new Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome and for building the Tempietto in the Eternal City. The Chiostri Bramanteschi that he built in Milan are now part of the Catholic University of the Sacred Heart. The Sant’Ambrogio was heavily damaged by an Allied bombardment in 1943. Especially the apse and its mosaic suffered badly.

Nave of the church.

Nave of the church.

The atrium

The church is preceded by an atrium, which was built in the ninth century by archbishop Anspert (868-881). Since the church was still outside the city walls at this time, the atrium could also be used for taking shelter if Milan was under attack. Anspert’s atrium was rebuilt in the twelfth century and it is this version that we see today. Look out for some of the beautiful medieval capitals. The tomb of the noted Italian humanist Pietro Candido Decembrio (1399-1477) can also be found here.


While the original church would presumably have had the form of a classical Roman basilica, this is no longer the case in the present church. There is no clerestory; the presence of a matronaeum – a gallery for those who could not participate in the ceremonies below – prevented the construction of windows at this level. As a result, the church can be pretty dark, especially during the winter. There is no transept either, while the church has three apses, typical of Romanesque churches (see the Pieve di San Leolino for another example). Below the high altar is the crypt, which contains the relics of Saints Ambrosius, Protasius and Gervasius. Expect hordes of pilgrims here; this is about the holiest site in all of Milan.

Bergognone's Risen Christ.

Bergognone’s Risen Christ.

The chapels in the aisles contain some interesting works of art. The first chapel on the left has a Risen Christ by Bergognone (Ambrogio da Fossano, died ca. 1524). The chapel dedicated to San Giorgio – Saint George – on the right has a Madonna and Child and the Child John the Baptist by Bernardino Lanino (ca. 1511-1578) as its altarpiece. The right wall of the chapel is decorated with a large fresco of Saint George slaying the dragon, also by Lanino. You have to pay to get the light on, and when we visited the chapel the gates were locked, so we had to peep through the bars.

The ambo and Tomb of Stilicho

In 1196, the dome of the Sant’Ambrogio collapsed and destroyed the ambo or pulpit. The pieces of the old ambo were collected and a new one was assembled. It is an interesting object, decorated with the symbols of two of the four Evangelists, John and Matthew, an eagle and a man.

Right side of the sarcophagus.

Right side of the sarcophagus.

Below the ambo is an ever more interesting object, the so-called Tomb of Stilicho. Stilicho was an important Roman general in the late fourth and early fifth century. He was also for a while the guardian of the Roman emperor Honorius, who had his general killed in 408. Whether or not this sarcophagus ever held Stilicho’s body is up for debate, but it is certainly a few decades older and dates to the fourth century. My travel guide suggests it may have once contained the body of the Roman emperor Gratianus, who was killed in 383. I do not know on what sources this claim is based, but it sounds like pure speculation (although Ambrosius, who had the church built, was one of the emperor’s advisors). Gratianus was killed in Lugdunum (present-day Lyon), which is 340 kilometres west of Milan. It is not completely impossible that his body was brought back to the capital, but I have yet to see the evidence.

The sarcophagus is notable for its Christian imagery. Unfortunately the view is somewhat blocked by the columns of the pulpit. The rear side of the sarcophagus is completely invisible, so we cannot even get a glimpse of the Traditio Legis, i.e. Christ giving the Law to Saint Peter. The left side shows the sacrifice of Isaac and four unknown saints. On the right side “there is the oldest sculptural representation of the crib: Jesus, between an ox and a donkey”, at least according to the information leaflet provided by the Sant’Ambrogio itself (see the image above). The upper part of this side indeed shows a swaddled child and two animals. The lower part shows a man in a chariot drawn by four horses (quadriga). The most plausible interpretation is that this is the prophet Elijah in his chariot of fire (see Milan: San Lorenzo Maggiore). I must admit I had my doubts at first, but the Vatican Museums – which have a plaster copy of the sarcophagus – say it is Elijah, so I am willing to accept it is him.

Front side of the sarcophagus.

Front side of the sarcophagus.

The scene on the front side bears resemblance to the famous mosaic of Christ the Lawgiver or Christ the Teacher in the San Lorenzo Maggiore. We see a young and beardless Christ among his apostles, who look much older. Above Christ are the deceased and his wife in a tondo, as well as four more scenes from the Old Testament (or so my travel guide says, but it does not say which scenes). Note that there are many swastikas on the sarcophagus. This of course has nothing to do with Nazism and is not even remotely related to Hinduism or the East in any way. We simply see what is called a gammadion cross, in other words four versions of the Greek letter gamma (Γ) glued together to form a cross.

Golden Altar and Ciborium

At the centre of the church we find the so-called Golden Altar, made of gold, silver and precious stones. It was commissioned by archbishop Angilberto II (824-859) in the ninth century and executed by the artist Volvinius. Volvinius needed some fifteen years to complete it.

Golden Altar.

Golden Altar.

The altar is definitely a masterpiece, richly decorated with scenes from the life of Christ on the front panels and from the life of Ambrosius on the other side. The altar used to contain the relics of Saint Ambrosius, but these were moved to the crypt later on. The Golden Altar is obviously of immense value, culturally, historically, religiously ánd financially. When we visited the Sant’Ambrogio in August 2016, it was just being cleaned by two men on their knees. They made sure it sparkled and glowed again like it never did before, and the amount of care they took was truly touching.

Above the altar is a huge canopy, the ciborium or baldachin. It was made in the tenth century, but rests on four porphyry Roman columns from the previous ciborium. These are from the fourth century and may still be in their original position. The present ciborium is richly decorated in painted stucco. The front shows Christ handing the Keys of Heaven to Peter and the Law to Paul.

Apse mosaic

The large mosaic in the apse is the undisputed highlight of the church, together with the Chapel of San Vittore (see below). But it is somewhat problematic as well. First of all, it is a bit difficult to see, as the view is obstructed by the ciborium. You cannot get close to the mosaic either, as the sanctuary is roped off (at least it was when we were in Milan). This also makes it harder to take good pictures of the mosaic. An even more difficult task is dating the mosaic. My travel guide claims it is from the fourth to eighth century, but later asserts that parts of it are from the sixth and eighth century. In any case, the Sant’Ambrogio’s own brochure states that the mosaic dates to the early thirteenth century and it is probably safest to accept this version, although parts of the mosaic may be older.

Apse mosaic.

Apse mosaic.

At the centre of the mosaic is Christ Pantokrator, “Ruler of Everything”, seated on a lavishly decorated throne. He is flanked by the archangels Michael and Gabriel and the Saints Protasius and Gervasius. At his feet we see tondi with the faces of three more saints, in this case Ambrosius’ sister Marcellina, his brother Satyrus (who has a beard but no moustache) and the rather obscure Saint Candida, presumably the Candida that became one of the patron saints of Naples. The Latin text below the tondi relates how Ambrosius founded the church as a final and eternal resting place for martyrs.

Ambrosius in Milan (Mediolanum).

Ambrosius in Milan (Mediolanum).

What is curious about the mosaic, is that it contains both Latin and Greek texts. Most of the texts are in Latin, but the text above Christ and the words to the left and right of the archangels are actually in Greek. Christ’s text is very strange, and it took me a while to find out what it actually says. ΙСΧС is of course an abbreviation of Ἰησοῦς Χριστός (Jesus Christ), and what follows should be Ο BΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΗΣ ΔΟΞΗΣ (Σ – or sigma – is the same letter as С). This translates as “the King of Glory”, an epithet that is much more common in the Eastern Orthodox Church. If you look closely at the Greek letters in the mosaic, you have to conclude that either the mosaicists had limited knowledge of the Greek language and alphabet, or Greek spelling was very different back then. If it is the former, then the artists dropped some letters and messed up the vowels. Perhaps in this case the text Ο BΑΣΙΛΕΥΣ ΤΗΣ ΔΟΞΗΣ is the Greek translation of the Latin text ‘Rex gloriae’, a text that appears in the Te Deum, an early Christian hymn. This hymn has been – wrongly – attributed to Ambrosius.

Ambrosius in Tours (Turonica).

Ambrosius in Tours (Turonica).

The smaller scenes on the left and right show the cities of Tours (Turonica) and Milan (Mediolanum) and the protagonists are Saint Martinus of Tours (Saint Martin) and Saint Ambrosius of Milan. The two scenes are connected. The one on the right shows Ambrosius in Milan, dozing off while standing at the altar during mass. Somehow this miraculously allows him to be present at Martin’s funeral in Tours, which is taking place simultaneously in the scene on the left. The story is a bit silly, as Ambrosius himself died on 4 April 397 and Martinus seven months later, on 8 November of that same year. Still, Ambrosius and Saint Martin were natural allies, as both were staunch opponents of the doctrine of Arianism, which denied the consubstantiality of God the Father and Christ his Son.[1]

The apse mosaics were badly damaged in the 1943 bombardments and had to be heavily restored after the war. As with the Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna, the restaurateurs used red lines to indicate which parts of the mosaic are still original and which are new. Note that in the scene in Tours, Ambrosius’ name is written in Greek letters again, and again the artist had some problems with the spelling… The scene in Milan is set in a church labelled ECL(ESI)A FAUSTAE, the church of Fausta. This is certainly not the Basilica Martyrum (i.e. the Sant’Ambrogio), and in fact, it looks a lot like the San Lorenzo Maggiore, but it is in all likelihood a different church in Milan.

Chapel of San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro

Ceiling of the chapel of San Vittore.

Ceiling of the chapel of San Vittore.

The other highlight of the Sant’Ambrogio is the Chapel of Saint Victor, San Vittore in Italian. Saint Victor Maurus was a Moor from Africa who was martyred in Milan in 303. Soon after his death, a cult developed around his personality and he was venerated at a shrine (sacellum) in the cemetery where he was presumably buried. This fourth century shrine was originally a separate structure that predates the Sant’Ambrogio by several years and was later incorporated into the church. The chapel was decorated with mosaics in the middle of the fifth century. It is not hard to imagine why it is called in Ciel d’Oro, “in the golden sky”: the dome is covered with golden tesserae and is sparkling like mad. When I visited the chapel in August 2016, the gates were unfortunately locked. I do not know whether this is always the case, but it is still possible to admire the mosaics through the bars of the gate. The chapel is quite dark, so do not forget to insert a 50 Eurocent coin into the machine for illumination.

Ambrosius, 5th century mosaic.

Ambrosius, 5th century mosaic.

At the centre of the dome is a mosaic of Saint Victor himself, holding a cross and a book with his own name. In the corners of the dome we see the symbols of the four Evangelists (they look somewhat clumsy, I must add). At the window level, there are the images of six more saints. One of them is Saint Ambrosius, and although it is not contemporary, it cannot have been made more than 50 years after his death, which makes it the oldest image of Ambrosius in existence. Ambrosius is depicted in the centre, flanked by Saints Protasius and Gervasius. On the opposite wall, we see Maternus, bishop of Milan from 316 until 328. He is flanked by two more African martyrs, Saints Felix and Navor. None of the mosaics are of exceptional quality, but the whole chapel is quite impressive nonetheless, especially because it is centuries old and still in one piece.

For this post I made use of the Dorling Kindersley travel guide to Milan and the Lakes (2010) and a brochure from the Sant’Ambrogio itself. I obtained some additional information from the English and Italian Wikipedia articles on the Sant’Ambrogio.


[1] Which is exactly why an Arian church in Ravenna was rededicated to Saint Martin after it had been converted to Orthodoxy.

Update 22 Augustus 2018: there were quite a few errors in the text, which have now been corrected. I have also improved the layout of the images.


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