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When St Ambrose (Sant’ Ambrogio) wasn’t confronting emperors, defeating Arianism, digging up relics or giving advice to virgins, he occasionally dabbled in hymn writing.

All in all, St Ambrose (d. 397) did okay for himself. His hymn, Veni, Redemptor gentium, has become an Advent classic.

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Veni, Redemptor gentium;
Ostende partum virginis;
Miretur omne saeculum.
Talis decet partus Deo.

O come, Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth.
Let every age in wonder fall,
such birth befits the God of all.

Most notably, Veni, Redemptor gentium (full text below) has been favorably received by the Protestant tradition. In 1524, Martin Luther translated the hymn as Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, and the Lutheran chorale has been sung on the first Sunday of Advent for centuries. The chorale was widely used in organ arrangements by Protestant composers of the Baroque period, including Bach (d. 1750), Sweelinck (d. 1621) and Telemann (d. 1767), whose works were played today during a lunchtime concert held in Milan’s Civico Tempio di San Sebastiano. Some sixteen centuries later, Ambrose’s O Come, Redeemer of the earth has come home in the form of German organ music.

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Today, Veni, Redemptor gentium remains one of the few fourth-century songs that you can find on youtube, including this ethereal rendition by Lisbeth Scott.

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DSC03355Speaking of Advent, Milan does it in spades. While the Protestant world and rest of Catholicism spend four Sundays preparing for Christmas, the archdiocese of Milan, which follows the Ambrosian liturgical rite, takes six weeks, extending the season of Advent into the middle of November.

Milanese children are not so lucky as to have chocolate advent calendars, which are popular in Germany and Britain, and, thus, to have six weeks of daily chocolate; however, Milan’s divergent tradition is clearly expressed in another classic image of the season – the Advent wreath (la corona dell’Avvento) – which locally boasts six candles instead of four (also see below).

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Finally, what do you give the person who has everything for Christmas? Simple. A Milanese gargoyle.

Since November, the 135 gargoyles of Milan’s Cathedral (Duomo) have been put up for adoption to raise money for the building’s ongoing renovation, a move that has been further necessitated by cuts in Italy’s culture budget. For a donation of €100,000, contributors will have their name inscribed underneath the gargoyle of their choice. Gifts certificates, no doubt, are also available.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Medieval Milanetc!

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Veni, Redemptor gentium;
Ostende partum virginis;
Miretur omne saeculum.
Talis decet partus Deo.

O come, Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth.
Let every age in wonder fall:
such birth befits the God of all.

Non ex virili semine,
Sed mystico spiramine
Verbum Dei tactum est caro,
Fructusque ventris floruit.

Begotten of no human will
but of the Spirit, Thou art still
the Word of God in flesh arrayed,
the promised fruit to man displayed.

Alvus tumescit virginis.
Claustrum pudoris permanet;
Vexilla virtutum micant,
Versatur in templo Deus.

The Virgin’s womb that burden gained,
its virgin honor still unstained.
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in his temple dwells below.

Procedit e thalamo suo,
Pudoris aulo regia,
Geminae gigans substantiae
Alacris ut currat viam.

Proceeding from His chamber free
that royal home of purity
a giant in twofold substance one,
rejoicing now His course to run.

Aequalis aeterno Patri,
Carnis tropaeo accingere,
Infirma nostri corporis
Virtute firmans perpeti.

O equal to the Father, Thou!
gird on Thy fleshly mantle now;
the weakness of our mortal state
with deathless might invigorate.

Praesepe iam fulget tuum,
Lumenque nox spirat novum,
Quad nulla nox interpolet
Fideque iugi luceat.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness breathe a newer light
where endless faith shall shine serene
and twilight never intervene.

Gloria tibi, Domine,
Qui natus es de virgine,
Cum Patre et saneto Spiritu,
In sempiterna saecula.

All praise, eternal Son, to Thee,
whose advent sets Thy people free,
whom, with the Father, we adore,
and Holy Ghost, for evermore. Amen.

Translation by J. M. Neale (1818-1866)

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