The Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan is one of the oldest existing churches in Italy outside of Rome. Originally constructed as the Basilica of Martyrs in the 4th century by Ambrose, one of the four original Doctors of the Church, it served as a bastion of Catholic-Orthodox Christianity during the turbulent era following the Council of Nicaea. Ambrose also constructed numerous other major churches in the city during his lifetime, some of which are still standing. As the site of Ambrose’s tomb, it later became an important stopping point for Christian pilgrims traveling to central Italy. During the Middle Ages, the basilica was also home to several monastic orders. Although overshadowed by the Cathedral of Milan, the Basilica of St. Ambrose is still regarded as the city’s most historic and religiously important church.
Ambrose was one of the critical figures of the Catholic Church in the 4th century. Born Aurelius Ambrosius, his father was an important Roman official, and Ambrose originally followed in his footsteps. In his thirties he served as governor of Milan, and was fairly important in imperial government circles. However, in 374, while mediating between Catholic and Arian factions in Milan, Ambrose was entreated to serve as the city’s new bishop. This was of particular note, as Ambrose was neither a confirmed Catholic, nor was he yet baptized. Almost overnight he was baptized and ordained, perhaps the fastest this had happened in Christian history since the days of the Apostles.
Ambrose went on to become one of Christianity’s greatest theologians. His years in secular government gave him a very practical approach to religion. Almost immediately after his appointment, Ambrose became ardently anti-Arian, and was instrumental in crushing the Arian heresy in Northern Italy. He was also, unfortunately, instrumental in the rise of Anti-Semitism among Christians during the late Roman era. Although records show that he spoke well of the Jews, his refusal to rebuild a synagogue that was destroyed by Christian rioters seemed to open a floodgate of anti-Jewish violence that contributed heavily to poisoning Christian-Jewish relations during the Middle Ages.
Ambrose was also a contemporary of Augustine and his mother Monica, and was involved in Augustine’s eventual conversion. Throughout much of his tenure as bishop, Milan was under constant threat by the Visigoths, and he was instrumental in rallying the people of the city to be courageous and steadfast during those troubled times. During his life he constructed many of Milan’s earliest churches, a surprising number of which survive. Upon his death in 397, he was entombed in the Basilica of St. Ambrose which he had built.
Although the basilica was rebuilt and restored on numerous occasions, notably during the 11th century, portions date back to the original 4th century construction, including most of the floorplan. Because the remains were never moved, the relic of Ambrose is one of the best preserved and most easily viewed of virtually any Christian corpse of the Roman period. The Holy Roman Emperor Louis II, the great-grandson of Charlemagne, was also interred in the church in the 9th century.
The Basilica of St. Ambrose as it stands today is something of an architectural hodgepodge, centered around the original 4th century structure with its 12th century Romanesque upgrades. The two adjoining monasteries constructed during the Middle Ages, each boasting its own bell tower, adds to the jumbled look of the complex. Finally, restorations following bombings in World War II were similarly incongruous.
On the plus side, most of the interior elements of the church are stunning, with some portions very ancient. The highlight of the church, both from a religious standpoint and from a somewhat morbid standpoint, is the crypt where the bodies of Ambrose and Louis II lie side-by-side. This crypt is almost unique among early Christian saints in that the body of Ambrose is almost certainly the correct one, and moreover that it is mummified and on full display. In other words, Ambrose may be the oldest known Christian remains which are fully, visually available to the public; a rare find indeed.
The Basilica of St. Ambrose is one of the must-see churches of Milan, and definitely gets its share of the city’s pilgrims. It is located very close to the city center, a few blocks west of the cathedral. It is open daily from 8:00am-7:00pm (closed noon-3:00pm for lunch). There is no charge for admission. Web: www.tourism.milan.it (official tourism website of Milan)
Milan is home to a cornucopia of architecturally, artistically and historically important churches. Ambrose himself is credited with also building the Church of San Nazaro in Brolo and the Church of San Simpliciano. There is also the Cathedral of Milan, generally recognized as the third largest cathedral in Europe, and the wildly popular Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, home to one of the world’s most famous frescoes, Leonardo DaVinci’s The Last Supper.