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Lombardy

All about Saint Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan: sites and symbols of the celebrations

On 7 December every year, the city of Milan celebrates the patron saint Saint Ambrose.

06 December 2022

4 minutes

Sant'Ambreus, as he is affectionately called in dialect, is in fact a much-loved saint by the people of Milan.

To mark this occasion, which falls close to the Immaculate Conception holiday, there is a very special vibe in Milan, with cultural events and solemn religious rites.
We retrace the Saint's footsteps, history and traditions through the places and symbols of the celebrations.

Why is Saint Ambrose the Patron Saint of Milan?

why saint ambrose is the patron saint of milan

Venerated by the Milanese for centuries, Saint Ambrose was actually born in Germany, in Trier, in 340. He arrived in Milan in 370 A.D. as governor of Annonaria Italy for the Roman province Aemilia et Liguria and immediately displayed his gifts of oratory and diplomacy, from the vantage point of a sophisticated classical culture. His greatest success was in settling disagreements between Arians and Catholics, with such skill that he was appointed bishop by acclamation on 7 December 374. A date that soon officially became the feast day of Saint Ambrose.

A Doctor of the Church and a strong character, he is also credited with the construction of numerous basilicas, such as San Nazaro, San Simpliciano, San Dionigi and the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio itself, all pearls of Milanese Romanesque architecture, as well as the birth of the Ambrosian liturgical rite. History also attributes to him the conversion of St Augustine, of Manichaean faith.

He was the consummate representative of a city that has always cherished culture and has venerated him as its patron saint ever since. 

The legends, myths and miracles linked to Saint Ambrose, Patron Saint of Milan

sant ambrose legends

One of the best-known legends has it that, while Ambrose was busy calming tempers in the dispute between Arians and Catholics, a child cried out 'Ambrose bishop!', and Ambrose was then followed by a jubilant crowd.

Miraculous events in the Saint's life began as early as his childhood. Indeed, legend has it that a swarm of bees landed on little Ambrose's mouth, not to sting him, but to inject the sweetness of honey: a metaphor for his eloquence. The tale then took root in the popular imagination to such an extent that Saint Ambrose became the patron saint of bees, beekeepers and wax makers.

The miracle of the resurrection of Dionysius, a bishop friend in exile, is attributed to the saint. During the journey to bring his mortal remains back to his homeland, the funeral procession was forced to stop at Cassano d'Adda. As Ambrose made his way to the site, Dionysius was resurrected from his coffin.

The events of the Iron Crown are also intertwined with those of Ambrose's life. This is the ancient crown used for the coronation of numerous sovereigns, in majestic rites often celebrated in the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio. Today it is kept in the Cathedral of Monza, but it was St Ambrose himself who initiated the religious belief that the metal ring, hence the term 'ferrea', was one of the nails used for Christ's crucifixion.

Places not to miss in Milan on the feast day of St Ambrose

places not to miss sant ambrose

Retracing the Saint's footsteps in Milan, the first destination on our itinerary is definitely the Basilica di Sant'Ambrogio, which houses his remains in its crypt. Admire it first from the outside when arriving from Via San Vittore: it is an outstanding Romanesque masterpiece. Visit the cloisters and the rectory, attributed to Bramante, then step inside. Several masses are scheduled on 7 December, but only the 10.30am mass is celebrated by the Archbishop.

Explore the neighbourhood where the Basilica is located; it's one of the most fascinating in Milan. Then move on to Piazza dei Mercanti. Look up along the façade of Palazzo dei Giureconsulti, whose central tower houses a niche containing a statue of Sant'Ambrogio, a 19th-century work by Luigi Scorzini.

You now come to Piazza Duomo. The Milanese like to say that Sant'Ambrogio lights up Christmas, and this is indeed the case: on 7 December, the imposing Christmas tree in the Piazza is lit up, along with the exquisite one in the octagon of the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II.

7 December: the whole of Milan celebrates, with culture, socialising and shopping

december 7 milan in celebration

Saint Ambrose is above all a religious holiday, but the city also celebrates it with its social and cultural rituals. All offices close, and as the following day, 8 December, is a national holiday, the calendar is conducive to planning a trip during the Immacolata ('Immaculate Conception') holiday. Many locals take the opportunity to kick off the skiing season, heading to mountain resorts such as Madesimo, Pila and Bormio.

But the ideas for the Immaculate Conception long weekend do not end there. Those who stay join the crowds of tourists. On 7 December, there is the opening night of the Teatro alla Scala and the presentation of the Ambrogini to citizens who stand out for their merit. In Piazza Castello, the traditional Oh bej! Oh bej! market opens, where you can find gift ideas and taste Sant'Ambrogio biscuits, delicious shortbread made with butter. To end the day on a high note, it's time to enjoy the first slice of panettone, the symbol of Milan. 

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