Saint Ambrose of Milan, Bishop and Doctor (Died 397): The Iconography

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 this painting). 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).

(Note however that a whip is also the emblem of St. Colomban, who was just as outspoken, though less successful, in opposing Queen Brunhild in Gaul.)

In addition to
this whip and his episcopal mitre and crozier, artists derived further attributes and subject matter from the Golden Legend's chapter on St. Ambrose, such as beehives to recall the swarm that came to his mouth when he was a child and a pointing boy to refer to the unusual events that led to his choice as bishop.

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. Ambrose and Protasius, whose cult he encouraged (example).

Feast day: December 7

At left, "St. Ambrose" - Giovanni di Paolo

Other images:
Polyptych panel of St. Ambrose, Vivarini
Polyptych of St. Ambrose, Vivarini
Gospel cover of 11th century
Baptizing St. Augustine, 1464-5
Golden Legend #57: html or pdf
Ambrose's letter to Theodosius on the Thessalonian massacre (cached)
Augustine on the penitence of Theodosius: City of God, V, xxvi (cached)
Paulinus of Milan, The Life of St. Ambrose

Also see:
Saints Gervasius and Protasius