Feast Day : March 20
Patronage: betrothed couples; Siena, Italy
Also known as: Ambrose of Siena or Sienna; Ambrose Sassedoni
Although three brilliant stars heralded his arrival, Ambrose, born on April 16, 1220, was so ugly and deformed that his mother and father, a book illuminator, couldn’t bear to look at him. They entrusted the baby to a nurse, who took the fretful child with her every day to Mass at the Dominican church of St. Mary Magdalene in Siena. According to lore, Ambrose quieted down if near the altar of relics but cried loudly when removed. When Ambrose was about one year old the nurse took him as usual to church and covered his hideous face with a scarf. While she was praying, a pilgrim said to her, “Do not cover that child’s face. He will one day be the glory of this city.” A few days later the child stretched out his twisted arms and legs, distinctly said the name “Jesus,” and became a normal and beautiful child. With such a miraculous gift from God, Ambrose embraced piety from the beginning. When he was two or three years old, his father offered him one of two books—one secular, one on saints—and Ambrose chose the one about saints. The child naturally gravitated to the care of the sick, poor and abandoned. At age seven he rose at night to pray and meditate, reciting the “Little Office of the Blessed Virgin” daily. Against the wishes of his friends and family, the handsome young Ambrose entered the Dominican order of preaching friars at age 17 in 1237. The friars sent him to Paris to study under St. Albert the Great, joining Albert’s other famous pupil, St. Thomas Aquinas. In 1248 Thomas and Ambrose accompanied Albert to Cologne, where Ambrose taught in the Dominican schools. Supposedly Ambrose had desired to write, but recognizing his inability to compete with Thomas, he became a preacher instead. Ambrose also served as a missionary and diplomat, traveling to Hungary in 1260 to evangelize the people. In 1266, he successfully represented Siena in its efforts to be released from an interdict, issued as the result of supporting Emperor Frederick II against the Holy See. Not only did the pope pardon Siena and restore her privileges, but he also forgave the city’s misplaced allegiance a second time with Ambrose’s intercession. Ambrose brokered peace between Emperor Conrad of Germany and Pope Clement IV (r. 1265–68) and preached the Crusade. Ambrose was named bishop ofSiena but declinedthe office. At the request of Pope Gregory X (r. 1271–76) Ambrose resumed teaching at the Dominican convent in Rome. Although Ambrose tried to retire after Gregory’s death, Pope Innocent V sent him as papal legate to Tuscany. He restored peace between Venice and Genoa and between Florence and Pisa. For 30 years Ambrose’s diplomatic skills gained him the regard of popes and kings. Nevertheless, Ambrose never let his service stand in the way of his devotion. He prayed and meditated constantly, often in a state of ecstasy. Stories of his victories over carnal temptations were legendary, and he frequently levitated while preaching. Sometimes Ambrose was surrounded by a “circle of glory”: a mystical light filled with birds of brilliant plumage. Shortly before his death in 1287 (brought on, according to some, by the vehemence of his preaching), Ambrose supposedly saw visions of great beauty. No collections of his sermons remain.