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Object of the Month: February 2018

St. Ambrose

Oil on panel

Gaspar de Crayer

Flemish, 1584–1669


Gaspar de Crayer spent much of his career as a painter of the elite in the Spanish Netherlands. In addition to portraits like St. Ambrose from M&G’s Collection (figure 4), he completed a large number of altarpieces. Matthias Depoorter notes: “The motifs that he borrows from the work of Rubens are so specific that people suspect that he had contact with Rubens’s studio.” For example, the figurative influence, coloration, and brushwork of Rubens’ Entombment (figure 1) is clearly evident in De Crayer’s Deposition (figure 2).

Depoorter goes on to point out that later in De Crayer’s career the influence of Anthony Van Dyke (Rubens most noted pupil) emerged. Critics note that Van Dyke’s portraits are characterized by a “relaxed elegance.”  But this elegance is enriched by a subtle emotional sentiment, one that intuitively connects the subject to the viewer. These qualities are readily discerned both in Van Dyke’s Self-Portrait (figure 3) and De Crayer’s St. Ambrose from M&G’s Collection (figure 4).


Ambrose was revered as a Greek scholar, poet, lawyer, and orator. Trained in politics and law he was literally thrust into ecclesiastical life. When Auxentius, Bishop of Milan, died in 374 the Arian heresy was on the rise in Milan. A violent factional outbreak over the election of a new bishop seemed inevitable until the 35-year-old Ambrose stood up in the square “exhorting the people to proceed in their choice in the spirit of peace.” Following his impassioned plea, the whole assembly took up the cry “Ambrose for Bishop.” Although the election astonished the young scholar, he took up the task with determination. Aware of his theological limitations he embarked on an arduous study of Scripture. He also read the church fathers, especially Origen and Basil. Before long he was revered by both low and high born as a “good shepherd.”

Although Ambrose is counted as one of the great doctors of the Western church, his reputation is overshadowed by his famous convert, Augustine of Hippo. It is not surprising, therefore, that Gaspar de Crayer would do a companion portrait of Augustine. This work, also part of the M&G collection, was featured as Object of the Month in February 2016.

Augustine acknowledged that Ambrose was the key figure in bringing him to Christ. He records in his Confessions that, “This man of God welcomed me, as a father. As a result, I began to love him, not because of his teaching, but because of his warm and loving personality. I enjoyed hearing him preach, not in order to learn from what he said, but in order to admire and learn to imitate his eloquence. Indeed, I still despised the doctrines he taught. Yet, by opening my heart to the sweetness of his speech, the truth of his teaching began to enter my soul, little by little.”  He was baptized by Ambrose in 387 and soon after returned to North Africa where he eventually became Bishop of Hippo, ruling in that turbulent African diocese for 34 years until his death in 430—33 years after his mentor.

Donnalynn Hess, M&G Director of Education


Published in 2018