Friday, December 7, 2012

Saint of the Month: St. Ambrose of Milan!

Titian, c.1488 - 1576
Expected Tournament debut Fall 2015

St. Ambrose of Milan

AKA:The Honey Tongued Doctor, Ambrogio of Milan, Ambrosius of Milan
Feast Day: December 7.

Really Existed? Definitely.
Timeframe: c.340 - April 4, 397.
Place: Milan, duh.

Credentials: Recognized by Tradition in the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.
Martyrdom: None, although some sources suggest martyrdom by overwork.

Patron Saint of: Bees, beekeepers, wax-makers, chandlers, domestic animals, learning and schoolchildren, Milan, and, several sites say, "the French Commissariat," although it is unclear what that might be.
Symbolism: Bees, a beehive, a scourge, a book, or a pen.

St. Ambrose of Milan is a much more important figure than I thought he was when I picked him out as our Saint of the Month. As someone whose extensive writings and teachings were extremely influential in Christian doctrine, he is considered one of the “Four Doctors of the Church” (along with St. Augustine, St. John Chrysostom, and St. Athanasius). He is often referred to as the “Honey Tongued Doctor,” which is not a nickname I would particularly want myself, but it is supposed to denote his strong abilities as a public speaker. (Also, it refers to a legend that when he was a baby, a swarm of bees settled briefly in his mouth. Also, some sources say that there is a pun involved, since ambrosia is Latin for honey. But ambrosia is a Greek word, and the Latin for honey seems to be mel, so that’s probably wrong.)

The Wiki says that this mosaic, from Milan, could
conceivably be an actual likeness of St. Ambrose made
while he was still living.  His body -- his skeleton now, of
course -- is on display in the same church; it is considered
bona fide and among the oldest identifiable human bodies
outside of Egypt.  There are numerous photos of this
holy site on the internet, but I warn you that they
are unquestionably pictures of a dead human being.
A lot of St. Ambrose’s life seems to have been spent working against the “Arians.” In this sense, the word “Arian” denotes someone pursuing a specific kind of heresy, one which “denies that the Son is of one essence, nature, or substance with God; He is not consubstantial with the Father, and therefore not like Him, or equal in dignity, or co-eternal, or within the real sphere of Deity.” The Arian heresy found considerable favor in the Eastern Empire – have I mentioned yet that we are in the Roman Empire in the 300s? – but was generally considered pretty pernicious in the West, at least after Ambrose got done with it. “It is not a modern form of unbelief, and therefore will appear strange in modern eyes,” says the Catholic Encyclopedia, but I do not think this is right. Indeed, I rather suspect that a goodly number of modern Christians are essentially closet Arians, without ever having heard the word or indeed ever having given the matter much thought. What appears strange to modern eyes, I think, is the notions of doctrine and heresy. Protestant denominations have doctrines, of course, but it is an exceedingly rare minister or lay person that pays the slightest attention to them. Catholics of my acquaintance and reading are deeply inclined to have Ideas of Their Own, neither willing to accept Church teaching in its entirety nor inclined to unite against it in an organized community of alternative belief. Thus, studying Saints often means reading about extremely contentious debates over points of belief that, to many modern readers, seem so finely drawn as to be bordering on the surreal.

Ambrose was of extremely high birth, the son of the Roman prefect of Gallia, which is to say most of Western Europe and a chunk of Africa thrown in for good measure. After distinguishing himself as an undergraduate, he graduated from law school at the top of his class. After a brief career as an attorney, he was appointed governor of Liguria and Æmilia and moved to Milan. This is a little confusing, since Milan is neither in Liguria nor Emilia. I think the deal was simply that he was an absentee governor living in the capital. Because apparently, from 286 to 402 a.d., Milan was the capital of the Western Roman Empire. Did you know that? I sure didn’t.

His involvement in the Church came after the death of the Bishop of Milan. Seeing that there would be fierce competition between the Arians and their opponents for control of the position, he went to the cathedral and made a speech encouraging everyone just to chill out and stay calm. He impressed the crowd so much, in fact, that they elected him Bishop on the spot. This was, we’re told, not at all what he had wanted, and one version of the story has him spending the next few weeks having prisoners put to torture and cavorting with hookers in an attempt to discredit his own moral authority. The people wouldn’t buy his act, and eventually he capitulated and agreed to hold office.

Did it matter in the end? Well, some hold that “St. Ambrose was largely responsible for the rise of Christianity in the West” during the decline of the Western Empire, so yeah, that’s a fairly credible legacy. Ambrose seems to have had a powerful influence over the religious and secular decisions of the Emperors of his day, Gratian, Valentinian II, and Theodosius I. He regularly defied imperial attempts to promote or just provide equal time for the Arian point of view, and got away with it. He publically criticized the secular power, and temporarily excommunicated Theodosius until the latter did what he wanted. Some of what he wanted was a large-scale persecution of pre-Christian Roman religious practice, and he got it.

In matters of faith and doctrine, St. Ambrose is regarded as instrumental in cementing the concept of the Virgin Birth of Christ, in developing Christian ethics, and encouraging the use of music in religious practice. He was hostile to Judaism and a big exponent of virginity. He is considered one of the great organizers and administrators of Christian history. It certainly seems plausible that without his presence in Milan, the Arian viewpoint might have held its own or even prevailed to become core Christian doctrine, and that students of history and theology might now scratch their heads over the heresy of Trinitarianism. But, for reasons involving divine truth, or historical accident, or both, it didn’t happen that way.

Let’s look at some pictures. Lists of symbols associated with St. Ambrose generally include bees, a beehive, a scourge, a book, or a pen as his identifying characteristics. Some of these might be more prominent in illuminations, medieval art, and icons of the Eastern Church. Big-name painters generally depict him with the scourge, emblematic of his feisty personality, and/or in the act of confronting emperors.

Francisco Goya, 1746-1828
Expected Tournament debut Fall 2013
Pierre Subleyras, 1699-1749
Tournament non-participant 
Peter Paul Rubens, 1577-1640.
Expected Tournament debut Fall 2015

Anthony Van Dyck, 1599-1641 -- copy made as a student of Rubens
Expected Tournament debut February 2013

Correggio (1489-1534)
Currently nearing end of First-Round competition v. Corot.
From the cow, you can tell that the last one is a twofer!! St. Ambrose and St. Luke!!


mcl said...

Thanks! love this period of history and of course the great paintings of the Renaissance!

Jenners said...

First painting puts him in the running for "Scariest Saint Ever."

Michael5000 said...

mcl: Thanks for the thanks!

Jenners: I see your point -- but, I think you might be marking yourself a a bit of a saint newb if you think that's as scary as they come.

Dr. Kenneth Noisewater said...

It looks like in two of those paintings, the Saint was working as a bouncer.

Was he too sexy for Milan, New York, and Japan?

Michael5000 said...

He was working as a bouncer! That's him not letting Emperor Theodosius into the "club" until he apologizes for a mass reprisal killing.

Too sexy? No. He wrote a whole book on how awesome female virginity is, and dedicated it to his sister. She must have been mortified.