The Ambrosian Liturgy

Themes: Biblical, Denomination, History, Liturgy, Scholar

The Ambrosian, or Milanese, liturgy shared common features with both Western and Eastern rites and served as a link between them. A central feature of the Ambrosian liturgy is its Christocentric nature, reflecting an ongoing struggle with Arian influence. Never suppressed by ecclesiastical authorities, the Ambrosian liturgy continues in use today.

Though usually associated with the metropolitan see once occupied by Saint Ambrose (d. 397), the Ambrosian rite includes in addition to the liturgy celebrated in the city of Milan (i.e., the Milanese liturgy), the liturgy of several other dioceses of Northern Italy (Bergamo, Ticino, Novara, Vercelli, etc.), and to a certain extent, the liturgy of Aquileia.

Unlike the other non-Roman Western rites, the Ambrosian liturgy was never officially suppressed by emperor or pope. In spite of Carolingian and later attempts to “Romanize” everywhere, the Ambrosian liturgy survived with numerous medieval accretions (Roman and non-Roman), but underwent major restorations first under Carlo Borromeo (d. 1584) and then at the beginning of the twentieth century under Cardinals A. Ratti (later Pius XI) and I. Schuster. It was completely revised and translated into Italian in the 1970s.

The suffering Jesus. From the eleventh century on, piety regarding Jesus focused primarily on his suffering as crucified redeemer. Paintings normally portrayed Jesus as deceased, with his head on his right shoulder, the arms drooping, the body sagging, and the legs crossed and held by one nail. The body assumes the shape of the letter S and expresses the agony at the helplessness of death. This theme is reflected in the Roman liturgies of the medieval era. The above sketch is adapted from the Album de Villard de Honnecourt from the second half of the thirteenth century, now in the Bibliothèque Nationale.

The liturgical patrimony of the Ambrosian liturgy was largely the result of strong Roman and Eastern influences. After its emergence as a distinct rite it came to share many of its features with all the Western rites, often serving as the bridge between East and West. What distinguishes it from all the other liturgical traditions, however, can be understood only in the context of the theological and political anti-Arianism in which it arose and evolved. With the exception of the Roman liturgy, the Arian controversy had a major effect on the euchology of all the Western traditions, though in no case did this struggle perdure as at Milan. In fact in its emergence (fourth–fifth centuries), its development (sixth–seventh centuries), and in the period of its stabilization (eighth–ninth centuries) the Ambrosian liturgy had to fight constantly against this heresy in one form or another. The most obvious result is the strong Christocentricism of the Ambrosian prayers, in both original texts and in the editing of texts borrowed from Roman and Carolingian sources.

The centrality of Christ is manifest not only in the careful consideration of the Incarnation and the virginal birth but also in the veneration of the Virgin Mary. In Ambrosian iconography it is possible to trace a progression from the Kyrios-Pantocrator to Deus-Homo, Homo-Deus, and Nobiscum-Deus, which corresponds to the various stages in the development of Ambrosian euchology. It is here that the Ambrosian influence on the other Western liturgies was most strongly felt.

In the early Middle Ages, the Ambrosian Eucharist had the following order:

*Ingressa no psalm


Oration super populum—collect




*Alleluia with verse (Cantus during Lent)



Dismissal of Catechumens

*Kyrie and *Antiphona post Evangelium


Oratio super sindonem

Offertory procession: ?Offerenda with verses

Proper Preface and Sanctus

Invariable Canon

Fraction and Commixtio; ?Confractorium

Lord’s Prayer and embolism

Communion: ?Transitorium no psalm

Oratio post communionem

*Kyrie and Dismissal

The Ambrosian office was unique in the West in spreading the psalter over two weeks. Like the Roman and Benedictine cursus, however, the Ambrosian assigned Psalms 109/110–147 to vespers. As in the cathedral office of fourth-century Jerusalem and the “Chaldean” rite, the morning office at Milan consisted of three canticles, the Laudate psalms (148–150), gospel reading, and a procession to the cross or baptistry, while vespers began with the lucernarium.

Medieval Preaching

In the medieval period, preaching in worship went into decline. The friars of the late Middle Ages took this task on themselves and became renowned as preachers. They preached out of doors and to vast audiences. Forbidden to preach on doctrine, they spoke mostly about morals and told legends of the saints to inspire people to live active Christian lives.

The Ambrosian chant tradition is preserved in some 300 north Italian manuscripts, most from the late twelfth century and later. Though sharing many features and texts with Gregorian chant, the Ambrosian has a closer affinity to the Old Roman and Beneventan traditions.

Have you completed this media item?