Defying an Emperor

Anthonis van Dyck, "Emperor Theodosius forbidden by St. Ambrose to enter Milan Cathedral" (1620)

—Anthonis van Dyck, “Emperor Theodosius forbidden by St. Ambrose to enter Milan Cathedral” (1620)

St. Ambrose, the fearsome fourth-century Archbishop of Milan, is said to have refused Theodosius entry into the cathedral because of the emperor’s vengeful massacre of the inhabitants of Thessalonica. Theodosius impetuously thrusts his face upwards towards the saint. Ambrose’s sturdy vigour has been transferred to the crozier as if the priest who holds it for the saint were ready to bring it crashing down on the emperor.

This painting is a free copy by Van Dyck of a large painting now in Vienna executed in Rubens’s studio. The finely drawn profile to the right of St Ambrose has been identified as a portrait of Nicolaas Rockocx, the friend for whom Rubens painted Samson and Delilah.

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