Magnificat December Art Essay: Altarpiece of Saint Ambrose (1503) by Alvise Vivarini (c. 1445–c. 1503)

Descended from a long line of distinguished Venetian painters, including his father and uncle who trained him, Alvise Vivarini was at the pinnacle of his career when he was commissioned to paint an …More
Descended from a long line of distinguished Venetian painters, including his father and uncle who trained him, Alvise Vivarini was at the pinnacle of his career when he was commissioned to paint an altarpiece for the Chapel of the Milanese in the Franciscan Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari in Venice. The Chapel of the Milanese had been created in the 14th century in recognition of the large number of devout Lombards residing in Venice. Their choice of Vivarini for the commission confirmed the high esteem in which his work was held in the Most Serene Republic. Given the sponsorship, it was agreed that the subject would be Saint Ambrose (337–397), Bishop and Patron Saint of Milan. The chapel itself, located slightly to the left of the main altar, held pride of place in the vast Frari Church, as it was known. A stunning architectural frame for the altarpiece was created in wood and painted gold, providing a strong visual framework, leading the eye into the powerfully illusionistic painted architecture of the scene itself.

A visual text to be read

Vivarini created a formal, carefully structured arrangement of figures and symbolic objects around the seated Saint Ambrose. Figures standing on either side of Ambrose create a sacra conversazione, an organizational device common to Renaissance painting. If the assembled saints are not actually speaking to one another, as is the case here, they seem united in contemplating similar spiritual realities, all related to Saint Ambrose. This is a didactic work of art which unfolds, through its rich symbolism, various aspects of the life, thought, spirituality, and accomplishments of the saint, an approach very appropriate to Saint Ambrose who as Bishop of Milan was first and foremost a scholar, prolific writer, and teacher par excellence.

Bishop Ambrose is seated under a great Roman vault, whose three arches continue the visual recession into the background begun by the architectural frame. This coffered Roman vault is symbolic of an important dimension of Ambrose’s thought and teaching. Living at the time of transition from a pagan Roman society to one increasingly Christian, Ambrose saw Christianity as replacing the old Roman political and pagan religious structures and forming a new synthesis between Church and State. This vault above him is new and flooded with light, suggesting hope for the forging of a new social and religious order. The sword to Ambrose’s right represents his service as Roman governor of Liguria and Emilia before he was called, by acclamation of the faithful, to become Bishop of Milan. In his left hand is a pastoral staff, symbolic of his role as bishop, while his right hand holds a scourge, reminder of the ascetical life he led personally. Three significant figures stand at his left side. Saint Jerome, at the front, recalls Saint Ambrose’s own scholarship and prolific writing, all deeply rooted in the Scriptures. Next is Saint Augustine, whose conversion was largely inspired by Saint Ambrose.

Two angels are seated in front of Saint Ambrose, playing a lute and a mandola. The inclusion of such figures was common in Renaissance painting, especially in Venice. They served as decorative elements and introduced a musical dimension to the painted scene. Vivarini, however, is not employing a stylistic formula but rather highlighting the profound influence Saint Ambrose had upon Church music and liturgy in Milan by introducing, among other liturgical reforms, antiphonal chant and forms of Eastern hymnody. The third figure, behind Saint Augustine, is Pope Saint Gregory the Great, whose enormous influence upon liturgical music equaled that of Saint Ambrose centuries earlier.

On Saint Ambrose’s right side are found Saint Sebastian, Saint John the Baptist, and an unknown figure. Not all members of a sacra conversazione are necessarily rooted in the painting’s symbolism, as some are added at the request of the sponsors in recognition of saints held in personal devotion. The two unknown figures immediately behind Saint Ambrose are undoubtedly sponsoring officers of the chapel’s confraternity who may well have requested the inclusion of these saints to whom they were devoted.

Out of many parts, a unity

From the diverse figures and objects there emerges a unified view of the saint, first and foremost a bishop, teacher, and liturgical reformer, who stands in a long line of saints from Jerome through Augustine and well beyond Gregory the Great. This formally structured painting becomes a text, a document to be read and from which to learn about Saint Ambrose. What emerges most strongly is Saint Ambrose, Bishop, who embodies and models the essence of a bishop and the role he is called to fill.

The clarity of Saint Ambrose’s thought and teaching is reinforced through Vivarini’s technique of factual, visual precision, first seen and experienced in the powerfully receding vault. Clarity is evident in every detail of the canvas, but is most obvious and stunning in the folds of Saint Ambrose’s white garment, particularly across his lap—a veritable tour de force. The spiritual content of the altarpiece is reinforced by a matching precision of style, as is the case with Saint Ambrose’s writings, wherein the precise stylistic presentation of spiritual content underpins a unity of thought.

The Queenship of Mary

At the pinnacle of the altarpiece Christ is seen crowning his Mother as Queen of Heaven, a depiction appropriate to the setting for this altarpiece, the Franciscan Church of Santa Maria Gloriosa, but also reflecting Saint Ambrose’s deep personal devotion to the Mother of God, expressed repeatedly and profoundly in his preaching as bishop and in his extensive writings. In this coronation scene, Vivarini brings his altarpiece to a visual crescendo, positing the centrality of Mary’s Queenship to the Franciscan Order, to the Frari Church, to Saint Ambrose’s personal spirituality and public teaching, and to the universal Church which Ambrose so well served and advanced.

Francis J. Greene

Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts, Saint Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, NY.