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Milan: The Basilica of St. Ambrose

One of the oldest churches in Milan, so relevant in its art and history

The Basilica of St. Ambrose is one of the oldest churches in Milan.

It is a beautiful place! The colonnade is reminiscent of the portico in Jerusalem and it was used for markets and trading.

We enter the church by walking down 3 steps and we visit the inside and the crypt, learning something more about the history of St. Ambrose, who came to Milan as prefect and he was elected Bishop by popular acclamation without any personal intent.


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Video full text: The Basilica of St. Ambrose

The only way to reach St. Ambrose’s is by walking down some steps,
because naturally we have to descend down to Roman times,
and go below the existing level of the city!
It’s the first time I have seen St. Ambrose’s,
it’s beautiful, with this magnificent sky.
The colonnade is reminiscent of the portico in Jerusalem,
that served the same purpose; it was used for markets and trading.
In fact, there is also a metric yardstick down in one of the columns,
which is a bit taller than a metre, it actually measures a metre and half,
and it was used for measuring fabrics. This was a veritable traders’ market.
History tells us that many of these columns were adapted.
This one was probably the column from a pagan building,
that was reinstalled, but upside down! You can tell that from the inscription.
Even the door’s wooden jamb is incredibly old and has been adapted.
This was a time during which Christianity asserted itself and became very important.
Above all with St. Ambrose.
There’s an inscription here in Latin and one in Greek.
The Ambrosian Mass is a combination of Eastern and Western rite.
There was the division between the East and the West, but they were both part the Roman Empire,
and therefore it still reflects an Eastern rite.
We enter the church by walking down another 3 steps.
This is the homily, the sermon of St. Ambrose.
Jesus is in the centre delivering a blessing.
These are the disciples, they are all of us in some way.
We’re all walking a path, feet are important, then there’s the journey and the travelling.So if we step on each other’s toes, as was the case with His disciples,
we have, in some way, to put up with one another.
Christianity, therefore, means having a positive relationship with one’s neighbour,
even by tolerating and accepting others.
Basically this is a very Milanese attitude, being hospitable,
as though having their cör in man (Milanese dialect for ‘wearing their heart on their sleeve’) means tolerating and sustaining.
It’s a nativity that’s ahead of its time.
Jesus appears as a child wrapped in swaddling clothes,
but also wrapped in a death shroud and laid in the tomb,
alongside are the ox and the donkey.
The first depiction of a nativity scene
that communicates very powerfully the meaning of Christianity, i.e. Jesus who was born, died and resurrected.
Climbing up to this part of the altar is important and very strange.
The floor was made by the architect Caccia Dominioni,
who wanted to provide a sense of precariousness that is very close to the idea of prayer.
The precariousness of the feet that walk this world where, when all is said and done, we are only passing through.
We’re here, but how long for?
St. Ambrose came to Milan as prefect.
He was German and he was elected Bishop of Milan in the year 374 by popular acclamation,
without having been baptised; that was to happen later.
He was also, in some ways, a politician and he excommunicated the Emperor.
St. Ambrose is, in fact, not holding a flower in his hand but a whip.
It would seem that Ambrose, who called himself Aurelius of the Aureli family,
really did not want to be appointed a Bishop.
He did everything he could to try and sully his reputation.
He would sentence people to be tortured and he welcomed prostitutes into his home.
He even attempted to flee, as can be seen in the panels.
But he was elected by force and he himself said:
“What resistance did I not make when I was raised to the Archbishopric!
But the violence done to me prevailed”
Once ordained Bishop his conduct was exemplary,
he gave a lot of his things away to the poor,
and didn’t hesitate to break open the sacred vessels to make charitable donations.
This is the episcopal throne, St. Ambrose’s chair.
This is where today’s bishops come and sit once they have been elected,
to take up their mandate from the diocese.
This is the crypt where St. Ambrose rests.
Following his death by natural causes,
he was buried, as was his wish, alongside Gervasius and Protasius,
two decapitated martyrs, two soldiers in the service of the Emperor.
They were martyred because they no longer acknowledged the Emperor’s power,
as being above that of God.
They were beheaded and they are here as soldiers to protect St. Ambrose.

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