Ambrose’s Basilica Showcases How ‘Church Is Built Upon the Rock of the Apostles’

Doctor and Defender of the Church Has Long Legacy


“Where a man’s heart is, there is his treasure also.” So said St. Ambrose.

One of the treasures in the life of a Catholic is the Church itself. The Catholic Church is holy and apostolic, and the treasures of its history and wisdom are manifested in the areas of architecture, painting and sculpture. All of these treasures were evident in a family trip to the Basilica of St. Ambrose in Milan, Italy, last summer.

The duomo (cathedral) gets all the attention in Milan, but anyone traveling to this major economic and cultural Italian city in northern Italy should not overlook the Basilica of St. Ambrose, which dates back to the third century and is one of the most important Catholic sites on all of Lombardy.

St. Ambrose is a doctor of the Church — his feast day is celebrated Dec. 7 — and one of the most important figures in the history of Milan. He was instrumental in the conversion of St. Augustine and a defender of Church teaching against the heresy of Arianism, which taught that Jesus Christ was the Son of God but quite distinct from and not equal to God the Father. This lack of belief in the divinity of Jesus was widespread at the time of Ambrose.

Ambrose grew up in a devout and very wealthy and influential Milanese household. His father had been a Roman governor, and Ambrose was schooled to follow in his steps. When the Arian bishop of Milan died, each faction, Orthodox and heretical Arian, attempted to get their favored candidate to be the next bishop. It almost came to a riot, but as governor of Milan, Ambrose intervened and spoke passionately about peace. He spoke so convincingly and inspiringly that a small boy yelled, “Ambrose for bishop!” In a surprise turn, everyone backed Ambrose, and he reluctantly became bishop.

Ambrose had four basilicas built during his time as bishop of Milan, with each strategically placed on roads entering the city from the north, south, east and west. One of them no longer exists, but the other three do — the Basilica of Martyrs later became known as the Basilica of St. Ambrose. The reason for this renaming is that St. Ambrose — along with two early martyrs of the Church named Gervasius and Protasius — is buried in the crypt below the main altar. My family descended into the crypt to pray before the remains of these saints, now enclosed in glass.

Back on the main floor of the basilica, we entered the beautiful and peaceful Sacred Heart Chapel. We took a rest there before we explored the rest of the church. Together, the five of us recited the prayer we say every night: the novena to the Sacred Heart.

One of the most striking elements of the basilica, and usually the first to be noticed as one enters the church and genuflects, is the altar itself. It was commissioned between 824 and 860 by Angilberto II, bishop of Milan. It is situated directly above the burial niche in the crypt where we had prayed. The altar, created by the master goldsmith Vuolvino, is an exquisite example of Carolingian art. This altar is a masterpiece in gold, precious stones, gilded silver and enamels. The front of the altar depicts scenes from the life of Christ, while the back depicts scenes from the life of Ambrose, and the sides show saints and martyrs from the Milanese church.

Most of what you see at the basilica today will date from the ninth century, during the major renovation of Angilberto II, but there are some original fourth-century elements still intact. One is the Chapel of St. Victor, where St. Satyrus, Ambrose’s brother, is buried. In this chapel we also found the oldest likeness of St. Ambrose done in a Roman portrait style: It shows Ambrose dressed in the clothes of an imperial consul, and the facial features are quite lifelike and reputed to be accurate. Another piece dating back to the fourth century is the Stilicho sarcophagus carved for a high-ranking Roman military officer and his wife. In a church filled with treasures, the Stilicho sarcophagus is not to be missed because it represents an example of early Christian sculptural work. (Directly above the sarcophagus is the pulpit constructed in the Middle Ages that is still used for solemn occasions.) The sarcophagus itself shows scenes from the life of Christ along its longer sides. On one of these sides, the one that is facing the congregation as they sit, is of Christ shown among his apostles. Our Savior is pictured on a mountain preaching. Looking closely, one can see that the feet of the apostles are all laying one on top of another, so that when one takes in the whole scene, the feet of the apostles seem interlocked like a chain. This represents the continuation of the life of Christ in his apostles: It is a metaphor for apostolic tradition. The apostolic tradition is one of the themes of the writings of Ambrose. Indeed, in the Liturgy of the Hours, there is a letter from the bishop of Milan, which is one of the readings for his feast day. St. Ambrose lived in a time when our Church suffered under major persecutions. This is what St. Ambrose has to tell us about the Catholic Church, the “Church of the Apostles”:

“The Church of the Lord is built upon the rock of the apostles among so many dangers in the world; it, therefore, remains unmoved. The Church’s foundation is unshakable and firm against the assaults of the raging sea. Waves lash at the Church but do not shatter it.

“Although the elements of this world constantly beat upon the Church with crashing sounds, the Church possesses the safest harbor of salvation for all in distress.”

Thinking about my grace-filled visit to this tranquil and interesting basilica, I know he is right.

James Carmody writes from Stratford, Connecticut.


Planning Your Visit
The basilica is open Monday to Saturday from 10am-noon and from 2:30-6pm; Sundays from 3-5pm.
Mass times are Monday to Friday: 8 and 9am and 6:30pm.
Sunday Masses are 9am and 6:30pm.
Festive Masses are 8, 10 and 11:00am and 12:15 and 7pm.
The 11am Mass on Sunday is in Latin in the Ambrosian rite and features ancient chant.
The Ambrosian rite or Milanese rite, named after St. Ambrose, is a recognized and valid rite within the Western Church. There are some differences; one example is that Advent in the Ambrosian rite is six weeks long, rather than four weeks.
How to get there: Milan has an excellent and efficient transit system. Tickets for the subway can be purchased at newsstands and tobacco shops. The Basilica of St. Ambrose is located along the Green subway line, the MM2. The stop is San Ambrogio, and the basilica is across the street when you emerge from the subway. Alternately, you can take Bus No. 50.