St. Ambrose was bishop of Milan when the city was the capital of the western empire. Both medieval hagiographers and modern historians note his assertive stands against members of the imperial family, resisting the Arianism of the Empress Justina and demanding repentance from the Emperor Theodosius for a massacre in Thessalonica (as in
These posititions helped establish in the West the principle that the Church was supreme in spiritual matters.
In the art the emblem of St. Ambrose's assertiveness is often a riding whip (example).
In addition to this whip and his episcopal mitre and crozier, artists derived further attributes and subject matter from the Golden Legend. Some images use bees or a beehive as his attribute, as in the third picture at right. The Legend says a swarm of bees buzzed around his mouth when he was a child, leading his father to predict great things for him. Duchet-Suchaux (25) says some life-cycle paintings use a pointing boy to refer to the episode in the Legend when Ambrose was a governor and had to calm a near-riot between Arians and Catholics over who should be the next bishop of Milan. A boy pointed to him and called out that Ambrose should be chosen. The people agreed.
Other attributes refer to his theological work: a book in his hand, an inspirational dove above him while he writes, or an ox to represent his commentary on the Gospel of Luke.
Finally, St. Ambrose figures in images of the life of St. Augustine, whom he baptized (example), and of SS. Gervasius and Protasius, whose cult he encouraged (example).
Prepared in 2014 by Richard Stracke, Emeritus Professor of English, Georgia Regents University, revised 2015-07-25.