From New World Encyclopedia

Saint Ambrose

Saint Ambrose, mosaic in the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan
Born between 337 and 340 C.E. in  Trier, southern Gaul
Died April 4, 397 in  Milan, Italy
Venerated in Catholic Church
Eastern Orthodox Church
Lutheran Church
Major shrine Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan
Feast December 7
Attributes Beehive, child, whip, bones
Patronage bee keepers; bees; candle makers; domestic animals; French Commissariat; learning; Milan, Italy; students; wax refiners

Saint Ambrose (c.339 - April 4, 397 C.E.), known in Latin as Ambrosius, was successful bishop of Milan, who was later recognized as one of the original four Latin Doctors of the Church along with Augustine of Hippo (354-430), Gregory the Great (c.540-604), and Jerome (c.342-419).

In the beginning of his life, Ambrose embarked upon a career in law and politics and became the Imperial governor of Northern Italy. But he was drafted into ecclesiastical service, when the episcopal see of Milan became vacant in 374. As bishop of Milan, he proved to be a fierce opponent of heresy, paganism, and hypocrisy. He was a great ecclesiastical statesman, battling to preserve the independence of the church from the state. For example, he courageously threatened the powerful Christian Emperor Theodosius I with excommunication for a massacre of innocent civilians in Thessalonica. He was also a prolific writer as a theologian, producing two of the first great theological works written in Latin, De sacramentis ("On the Sacraments") and De Spiritu Sancto ("On the Holy Spirit"). He also gave numerous sermons and treatises on the spiritual life and composed hymns and psalm tones that had a significant impact on sacred music.

Ambrose is also well known for helping Augustine to accept Christianity through his preaching and teaching Augustine liked and for baptizing him. Ambrose died on Holy Saturday (April 4) in the year 397. His feast day in the Roman calendar is December 7, the day he was ordained bishop.

Despite his recognized status as a Doctor of the Church, Ambrose's theology has unique features such as his support for universal salvation and his sexual interpretation of the fall of Adam and Eve, which are not necessarily part of church dogma for many centuries, but which are now drawing more attention.


Worldly career

Ambrose was a citizen of Rome, born between about 337 and 340 in Trier, Germany, into a Christian family at a time when being a Christian had become both socially acceptable and political advantageous in the Roman Empire. He was the son of a praetorian prefect of Gallia Narbonensis; his mother was a woman of intellect and piety. There is a legend that as an infant, a swarm of bees settled on his face while he lay in his cradle, leaving behind a drop of honey. His father considered this a sign of his future eloquence. For this reason, bees and beehives often appear in the saint's symbology.

After the early death of his father, Ambrose was educated in Rome, studying literature, law, and rhetoric. Praetor Anicius Probus gave him his first official appointment and then, in about 372, made him governor of Liguria and Emilia, with headquarters at Milan, which at that time was the virtual capital of Italy. Ambrose made an excellent administrator in this important position and soon became very popular.

Bishop of Milan

Saint Ambrose by Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664)

There was a deep conflict in the diocese of Milan, as well as in the rest of the church, between the Trinitarians and the Arians. In 374, Auxentius, bishop of Milan, who was a supporter of Arianism, died, and the Arians challenged the succession. The governor went personally to the basilica where the election should take place, to prevent an uproar which was probable in this crisis. His address was interrupted by a call "Ambrose for bishop!" which was taken up by others, upon which he was supposedly elected bishop by unanimous voice vote.

Ambrose was a likely candidate in this situation, because he was known to be personally a Trinitarian, but acceptable to the Arians due to the charity shown in theological matters in this regard. At first he energetically refused the office, for which he was in no way prepared—he was so far only a catechumen, not even baptized yet, with no theological training. Only by the intervention of the emperor did he give in, receiving both baptism and ordination, and was duly installed as bishop of Milan within a week.

As bishop, he immediately adopted an ascetic lifestyle, apportioned his money to the poor, donating all of his land, making only a provision for his sister Marcellina, and committed the care of the rest of his family to his brother.

Using his excellent knowledge of Greek (which was then rare in the West) to his advantage, Ambrose studied the Septuagint version of the Hebrew Bible and Greek authors like Philo, Origen, Athanasius, and Basil of Caesarea, with whom he was also exchanging letters. He applied this knowledge as a preacher, concentrating especially on exegesis of the Old Testament.

Ambrose and the Arians

Ambrose's supposed charity toward the Arians never materialized in his new role as bishop of Milan. He immediately and forcefully moved against Arianism in Milan. At that time the Arians dominated the higher levels of society. The Arians appealed to many high-level leaders and clergy in both the Western and Eastern Empires. Although the Western Emperor Gratian ascribed to the Nicene creed, the younger Valentinian II, who became his colleague in the empire, adhered to the Arian creed. Ambrose did not sway the young prince's position. In the East, Emperor Theodosius I likewise professed the Nicene creed; but there were many adherents of Arius throughout his dominions, especially among the higher clergy.

In this contested state of religious opinion, two leaders of the Arians, Bishops Palladius of Ratiaria and Secundianus of Singidunum, confident of numbers, prevailed upon Gratian to call a general council from all parts of the empire. This request appeared so equitable that Gratian complied without hesitation. However, Ambrose feared the consequences and prevailed upon the emperor to have the matter determined by a council of the Western bishops. Accordingly, a synod composed of 32 bishops was held at Aquileia in the year 381. Ambrose was elected president, and Palladius, being called upon to defend his opinions, declined. A vote was then taken, and Palladius and his associate Secundianus were deposed from the episcopal office.

Nevertheless, the increasing strength of the Arians proved a formidable task for Ambrose. In 386, Emperor Valentinian II and his mother Justina, along with a considerable number of clergy and laity, especially military, professed the Arian faith. They attempted to turn over two churches in Milan, one in the city, the other in the suburbs, to the Arians. Ambrose refused and was required to answer for his conduct before the council. He went and his eloquence in defense of the orthodox Trinitarianism reportedly awed the ministers of the emperor, so he was permitted to retire without having to surrender the churches. The day following, when he was performing the liturgy in the basilica at Milan, the prefect of the city came to persuade him to give up at least the church in the suburbs. As he still refused, the court proceeded to violent measures and the officers of the imperial household were commanded to prepare the basilica and the suburban churche to celebrate the divine service upon the arrival of the emperor and his mother at the ensuing festival of Easter. In spite of imperial opposition, Ambrose declared:

If you demand my person, I am ready to submit: carry me to prison or to death, I will not resist; but I will never betray the church of Christ. I will not call upon the people to succor me; I will die at the foot of the altar rather than desert it. The tumult of the people I will not encourage: but God alone can appease it.[1]

Ambrose and emperors

Saint Ambrose and Emperor Theodosius by Sir Anthony Van Dyck (1599-1641)

Although the imperial court was displeased with the religious principles of Ambrose, his aid was soon solicited by the emperor. When Magnus Maximus usurped the supreme power of the Western Roman Empire in Gaul in 383 by order of the Eastern Roman Emperor Theodosius I and was meditating a descent upon Italy, Valentinian II sent Ambrose to dissuade Magnus Maximus from the undertaking, and the embassy was successful.

On a similar second attempt, Ambrose was again employed. However, he was unsuccessful this time. Magnus Maximus entered Italy, and Milan was taken. Although the royal household fled, Ambrose remained at his post, and did good service to many sufferers by causing the plate of the church to be melted for their relief.

Ambrose challenged Theodosius I for being too supportive of the rights of the Jews when the emperor of the Eastern Empire ordered the rebuilding of a Jewish synagogue at a local bishop's expense after a Christian mob in his city of Callinicum in Mesopotamia had burned it at his instigation in 388. Ambrose argued that it was inappropriate for a Christian emperor to protect the "Christ-rejecting" Jews in this way, saying sarcastically as if he himself were an arsonist: "You have the guilty man present, you hear his confession. I declare that I set fire to the synagogue, or at least that I ordered those who did it, that there might not be a place where Christ was denied."[2] The emperor backed down, and the bishop who had perpetrated this crime went unpunished. Hailed by some as a victory for the independence of the Church from state control, the event provided immunity for Christian Jew-baiters and reportedly occasioned the damage and destruction of synagogues all over the empire. This does not mean that Ambrose entirely disliked the Jews. He did "occasionally say a good word for the Jews" through his commentaries on the Hebrew Bible.[3]

Ambrose was also zealous in combating the attempt made by the upholders of the old state religion to resist the enactments of Christian emperors. The pagan party was led by Quintus Aurelius Symmachus, consul in 391, who presented to Valentinian II a strong but unsuccessful petition praying for the restoration of the Altar of Victory to its ancient station in the hall of the Roman Senate, state support of seven Vestal Virgins, and the regular observance of the other pagan ceremonies. To this petition, Ambrose replied eloquently in a letter to Valentinian, arguing among other things that heathen sacrifices were offensive to Christians, and that it was the duty of a Christian prince to suppress pagan ceremonies.

Ambrose also threatened Theodosius with excommunication for the massacre of 7,000 persons at Thessalonica in 390, after the murder of the Roman governor there by rioters. Ambrose told Theodosius to imitate David in his repentance, just as he had imitated the violent king in guilt. Ambrose readmitted the emperor to the Eucharist only after several months of penance. Ambrose's influence upon Theodosius is credited with eliciting the enactment of the "Theodosian decrees" of 391, in which he declared Christianity as the only legitimate imperial religion and officially ended state support for the traditional Roman religion.

In 392, after the assassination of Valentinian II and the attempted usurpation by Eugenius, Ambrose supplicated Theodosius for the pardon of those who had supported Eugenius after Theodosius was eventually victorious. Soon after acquiring the undisputed possession of the whole Roman Empire, Theodosius died at Milan in 395, and two years later (April 4, 397) Ambrose also died. He was succeeded as bishop of Milan by Simplician. Ambrose's body may still be viewed in the Church of Saint Ambrogio in Milan, where it has been continuously venerated—along with the bodies identified in his time as being those of Saints Gervase and Protase—and is one of the oldest extant bodies of historical personages known outside of Egypt.

Ambrose and Augustine

Of all the things Ambrose accomplished for the church, perhaps the conversion of Augustine was the most significant and enduring, given the latter's tremendous influence in the history of Christianity.

In 384 Augustine came to Milan, being appointed as a professor of rhetoric for the imperial court there. Monica, his mother, followed him. She had been praying for years that her son might repent his sinful life, give up Manichaeism, and accept the Christian faith. As a member of the congregation of Ambrose, she brought her son to his sermons, believing that the leaned and eloquent Ambrose would be able to convert him. To please his mother, Augustine began attending Ambrose's sermons. The rhetorical abilities of Ambrose impressed Augustine, who hitherto had thought poorly of Christian preachers. Ambrose's style blended Neoplatonic ideas with the revelation of the Bible, and it led Augustine to renounce Manichaeism and become a Neoplatonist first. Ambrose also personally instructed Augustine. After struggling about his own continuous carnal desire, Augustine was now converted to Christianity in 386. At the Mass of the Easter Vigil, the night of April 24-25, 387, Ambrose baptized him.

In his Confessions (book VI, chap. 3), Augustine respectfully reports that Ambrose was always busy in giving spiritual advice to many people, and that when he was not with these people, he was either filling his body with the food necessary to live, or filling his spirit with reading the Bible with his mouth closed and only with his eyes.

Writings and music

Selected theological writings of Ambrose, include: De fide ad Gratianum Augustum ("On Faith, to Gratian Augustus"); De officiis ("On the Offices of Ministers," an important ecclesiastical handbook); De Spiritu Sancto ("On the Holy Spirit"); De incarnationis Dominicae sacramento ("On the Sacrament of the Incarnation of the Lord"); De mysteriis ("On the Mysteries"); and Expositio evangelii secundum Lucam ("Commentary on the Gospel according to Luke").

His ethical works include: De bono mortis ("Death as Good"); De fuga saeculi ("Flight from the World"); De institutione virginis et sanctae Mariae virginitate perpetua ad Eusebium ("On the Birth of the Virgin and the Perpetual Virginity of Mary"); De Nabuthae ("On Naboth"); De paenitentia ("On Repentance"); De paradiso ("On Paradise"); De sacramentis ("On the Sacraments"); De viduis ("On Widows"); De virginibus ("On Virgins"); De virginitate ("On Virginity"); Exhortatio virginitatis ("Exhortation to Virginity"); and De sacramento regenerationis sive de philosophia ("On the Sacrament of Rebirth").

Among Ambrose's works of biblical exegesis are: Hexaemeron ("Six Days of Creation"); De Helia et ieiunio ("On Elijah and Fasting"); De Iacob et vita beata ("On Jacob and the Happy Life"); De Abraham ("On Abraham"); De Cain et Abel ("On Cain and Abel); De Ioseph ("on Joseph"); De Isaac vel anima ("On Isaac, or the Soul"); De Noe ("On Noah"); De interpellatione Iob et David ("On the Prayer of Job and David"); De patriarchis ("On the Patriarchs"); De Tobia ("On Tobit"); Explanatio psalmorum ("Explanation of the Psalms"); and Explanatio symboli ("Commentary on the Symbol").

His funeral orations are: De obitu Theodosii; De obitu Valentiniani; and De excessu fratris Satyri. His other writings include 91 letters, a collection of hymns, fragments of sermons, and Ambrosiaster ("Pseudo-Ambrose"), a brief commentary on Paul's Epistles which was long attributed to Ambrose.

Ambrose is traditionally credited with (but not actually known to have composed) any of the repertory of the Ambrosian chant, also known simply as "chant." Ambrosian chant was named in his honor due to his contributions to the music of the church. He is also credited with introducing hymnody from the Eastern Church into the West. The success of Arian psalmody led Ambrose to compose several original hymns as well, four of which still survive, along with music which may not have changed too much from the original melodies. Each of these hymns has eight four-line stanzas and is written in strict iambic tetrameter.

Selected music by Ambrose includes: Deus Creator Omnium ("God, Creator of Every Thing and Being"); Aeterne rerum conditor ("Eternal Maker of All Things"); Jam surgit hora tertia ("Now as the Third Hour Begins"); and Veni redemptor gentium ("Come, Redeemer of the Nations").[4] Ambrose was also traditionally credited with composing the hymn Te Deum, which he is said to have composed when he baptized Augustine, his celebrated convert.

Unique theological features

Statue of Saint Ambrose

Ambrose ranks with Augustine, Jerome, and Gregory the Great, as one of the four original Latin Doctors of the Church. He succeeded as a theologian despite his juridical training and his comparatively late learning of biblical and doctrinal subjects. His intense episcopal consciousness furthered the growing doctrine of the church and its sacred ministry. Without his firm position regarding the Trinity, the history of the struggle between Arianism and orthodox Trinitarianism, for better or worse, might have been very different. His powerful mariology also influenced contemporary popes such as Popes Damasus and Siricius and later, Pope Leo the Great. His student Augustine and the Council of Ephesus (431) were equally under his spell in this matter. Central to Ambrose is the virginity of Mary and her role as Mother of God.

In spite of his great status as a Doctor of the Church, however, the theology of Ambrose has at least two unique features that have basically been unacceptable to church dogma for many centuries but which are attracting more attention today. First, it teaches universal salvation. Ambrose was a Christian universalist; he believed that all people would eventually achieve salvation: "For now, since all do not believe, all do not seem to be in subjection. But when all have believed and done the will of God, then Christ will be all and in all."[5] Perhaps because he was able to read Greek, Ambrose's theology was significantly influenced by that of Origen (c.185-c.254) and Didymus the Blind (c.313-c.398), two other early Christian universalists. Needless to say, universal salvation is more acceptable to the Catholic Church today, as its new, post-Vatican II Catechism says: "In hope, the Church prays for 'all men to be saved'."[6]

A second unique feature of Ambrose's theology is his sexual interpretation of the fall of Adam and Eve, according to which their fall consisted in the loss of virginity. Official church dogma regarding the fall, developed and established largely by Augustine, asserts that the fall consisted simply in disobedience on the part of Adam and Eve who ate the fruit against God's commandment, and that the act of the fall itself did not involve any sex. For this reason, Catholic theology usually criticizes Ambrose's sexual interpretation.[7] Although it should be understood that his sexual interpretation came primarily from his ascetic emphasis on the importance of pure virginity even to the neglect of marriage, nevertheless his position may throw a new light on the nature of the fall in today's ongoing discussion.

Attitude toward the Arians and the Jews

Ambrose's attitude toward the Arians and the Jews has been perceived by critics to be very harsh and cold. His uncompromising opposition to the heresy of Arianism led him to do many moves against the Arians. For example, he politically led two Arian bishops to be deposed in 381. Ambrose's antisemitic stance was also very clearly displayed in his infamous criticism of Emperor Theodosius' way of handling the incident in Callinicum in 388. Ambrose even suppressed pagan ceremonies strongly. In a basically negative tone, therefore, the British author Paul Johnson refers to Ambrose as "as an establishment figure and member of the ruling order: the prototype of the medieval prince-bishop."[8] Other critics have pictured Ambrose's leadership as "unbalanced" or even "perverse."

According to more sympathetic interpreters such as Bruce Chilton, however, the problem was not "some defect of his [i.e., Ambrose's] temperament, a momentary loss of self-control or a lapse in his sense of propriety or law," and what motivated his action was not his defective emotions but "a logical outcome of his sense of history."[9] Behaviors such as the mob's arson of the synagogue in Callinicum, from this kind of viewpoint of Ambrose, simply helped God's will along because it was burnt by God's judgment: "If it be objected to me that I did not set the synagogue on fire here, I answer, it began to be burnt by the judgment of God, and my work came to an end."[10] But, even this more sympathetic interpretation cannot prove that Ambrose's sense of history was not antisemitic.

At this juncture, one is to be reminded that Ambrose was actually a Christian universalist, as was seen in the preceding section. How can his antisemitism be reconciled with his universalism? His conceivable answer to this question is his interesting universalist view that even if people such as the Jews (and also the Arians) may miss the first resurrection, they will be purified by the fire of punishment by the time of the second resurrection, and that if they miss even that chance, they will simply stay longer in the fire of punishment that will eventually purify them:

Our Saviour has appointed two kinds of resurrection, in accordance with which John says, in the Apocalypse, "Blessed is he that hath part in the first resurrection"; for such come to grace without the judgment. As for those who do not come to the first, but are reserved until the second resurrection, these shall be burnt, until they fulfill their appointed times, between the first and the second resurrection; or, if they should not have fulfilled them then, they shall remain still longer in punishment.[11]


Ambrose was not only a theological giant of the Western Church, later known as Roman Catholicism, but also a great administrator, playing a large role in laying the foundations for the independence of the church from the political vicissitudes of the state in his courageous opposition to various imperial policies. It may be that many circumstances during the life time of Ambrose were characteristic of the general spirit of the times, and that the chief cause of his victory over his opponents was his great popularity based on the reverence paid to the episcopal character in that period. But it must also be noted that he used several indirect means to obtain and support his authority with the people.

He was liberal to the poor; it was his custom to comment severely in his preaching on the public characters of his times; and he introduced popular reforms in the order and manner of public worship. It is alleged, too, that at a time when the influence of Ambrose required vigorous support, he was admonished in a dream to search for, and found under the pavement of the church, the remains of two martyrs, Gervase and Protase.


  1. Encyclopedia Britannica, 6th ed., "Ambrose." Online. Retrieved February 5, 2009.
  2. Ambrose, Letter 40.8. Retrieved February 6, 2009.
  3. Jewish Encyclopedia, "Ambrose." Retrieved December 4, 2007.
  4. See the text of some Ambrosian hymns [1] Retrieved February 6, 2009.
  5. Ambrose, Exposition of the Christian Faith, book V, chap. 15, section 182.
  6. Catechism of the Catholic Church, 1821.
  7. For example, see Ludwig Ott, Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma (Rockford, Il.: Tan Books and Publishers, 1960), 107.
  8. Paul Johnson, A History of Christianity (Touchstone, 1979).
  9. Bruce D. Chilton, "Christian Reconstruction of Judaism: The Church Fathers from Nicea to Chalcedon," in Judaism from Moses to Muhammad, ed. Jacob Neusner, William Scott Green, and Alan J. Avery-Peck (Brill Academic Publishers, 2005), 247.
  10. Ambrose, Letter 40.8. Retrieved February 23, 2009.
  11. "The Restitution of All Things." Retrieved February 23, 2009.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Colish, Marcia L. Ambrose's Patriarchs: Ethics For The Common Man. University of Notre Dame Press, 2005. ISBN 0268023654
  • Morino, Claudio. Church and State in the Teaching of St. Ambrose. Catholic University of America Press, 1969.
  • Ramsey, Boniface. Ambrose. London: Routledge, 1997. ISBN 9780415118422
  • Raynolds, Robert. The Sinner of Saint Ambrose. Bobbs-Merrill, 1952.
  • Schaff, Philip, and Henry Wace, eds. St Ambrose: Select Works and Letters (Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, 2nd series, volume 10). Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 2002. ISBN 0802881246
  • Sutterlee, Craig A. Ambrose of Milan's Method of Mystagogical Preaching. Liturgical Press, 2002. ISBN 9780814661857
  • Thornton, Robinson. St. Ambrose: His Life, Times And Teaching (1879). Kessinger Publishing, 2008. ISBN 1436513278

External links

All links retrieved July 23, 2023.


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