Italian Ways had the opportunity to publish this special on Volvinio’s altar in the Basilica of Saint Ambrose thanks to the kindness and helpfulness of abbot pastor, His Excellency Bishop Erminio De Scalzi; archpriest, Monsignor Biagio Pizzi; and deacon Jacopo De Vecchi, who allowed Renato Cerisola to photograph this masterpiece of the Carolingian era so close, and without the very think glass screen that normally protects it. These are, therefore, unique photographic images.
by Giuseppe Frangi
Angilbert, “qui fecit deaurari altare sancti ambrosiae” (“who gilt the altar of Saint Ambrose”) was archbishop of Milan for 35 years, from 824 to 859. He was behind the final peace accord with the Franks, the emerging protagonists of the Western Roman Empire. For him, ecclesiastic activity could never be disjoined from political sensitivity. Indeed, when he commissioned the wonderful masterpiece of the golden altar for the Basilica of Saint Ambrose, he was extremely careful about every iconographic detail. For example, in the story of the life of Saint Ambrose that decorates the back of the altar, he insisted on the miraculous addition of Saint Martin from Tours – patron of the Franks – at the bishop’s funeral. Martin is also represented in one of the two sides of the altar, among the many saints of the Ambrosian church. Furthermore, Angilbert avoided all the prickly episodes of Ambrose’s conflict with the imperial power about Arianism: if this was to be an “altar of peace”, then peace was to be kept on all fronts.
Angilbert’s goal was to consecrate the power of Milan’s church by “resting” it on the remains of its patron saint, just as Venice had done in 826 by seizing the remains of Saint Mark. Thus, he had the presbytery of the Ambrosian basilica raised, and placed the body of Ambrose in the crypt, flanked by the remains of Gervasius and Protasius, the two martyrs that Ambrose had found in a nearby necropolis.
The altar’s reliefs show Angilbert in an extremely strategic position: he is right above the door that opens a direct passage to Ambrose’s tomb beneath.
In the scene, Angilbert offers Ambrose the altar: a gift so heavy that he is forced to bend over in an imbalanced pose. On the other door, the “phaber” of the altar, Volvinio, stoops to receive Ambrose’s blessing. If Volvinio had been the manual author of this side of the altar and its stories about the patron saint of Milan’s church, this would be the very first self-portrait in history. In fact, it is far more likely that Volvinio was the intellectual who guided Angilbert in the ambitious iconographic endeavor of this monument, of unrivalled richness and beauty for its time.
We hardly know anything about Volvinio: he was probably of Frankish origins, just like Angilbert himself. He probably welcomed and guided the Hellenistic craftsmen – who created the front of the altar, entirely in gold foil reliefs – through the stories of the life of Christ. Let’s not forget that the altar was made during the years of a dramatic iconoclastic controversy – which would finally end in 847 – that made Byzantium a dangerous place for artists. Once in Milan, the Hellenistic goldsmiths hired for the altar imported some of the iconographic style of the Byzantine culture: for example, in both the Annunciation and the Nativity the Virgin Mary sits on a throne, representing her glorious majesty.
Instead, the Nativity scene shows an element of surprising and touching originality: behind the manger – which, following the Byzantine models of the time, is depicted like the tomb of Resurrection – a pastor raises his arms, exultant, almost like a modern soccer fan. After all, the Gospel itself states that “the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen…” (Lk 2:20). The story of the Marriage at Cana is told meticulously, without skipping anything, despite the limited space allowed. The six jars of water are in the foreground; Mary invites Jesus to act with a decisive gesture; the servants are busy pouring; in the back, the groom is sitting down and tastes the wine. All in a few inches of embossed gold foil!
Traditionally, mass in Saint Ambrose was celebrated ‘coram populo’: the faithful faced the most precious side of the altar, in which the narrative is most spirited. Let’s not forget that, in 815, the Synod of Paris had established that images are “almost scripture” and faith may be reached through them.
The side of the altar that faced the priest is silver instead of gold, and has a more elegant and simple style, with a slower pace, wider spacing, and two-tone technique that makes images easier to read. Some of the scenes are stunning in their elegance: the one in which Ambrose runs away on horseback to avoid being made bishop, and the one in which he is called back – the horse bending to a sudden reverse – are two impressive works of art. Within all the constraints of these representations, details such as the horses’ sex were acceptable, but any episode relating to the tension between the bishop and political power had to be left out.
Thus, the great Angilbert set this monumental jewel on Ambrose’s tomb, as a symbol of faith but also as a “crown” – studded with wonderful gems, cameos and enamels – for the power of the church in Milan.