Monday, January 29, 2018


Brian P. Dunkle SJ., Enchantment and Creed in the Hymns of Ambrose of Milan. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016. Pp. 288. ISBN 9780198788225. $95.00.

Reviewed by Dennis E. Trout, University of Missouri (

Version at BMCR home site


By anchoring the hymns of Ambrose in the Milanese bishop's pastoral initiatives of the 380s, Brian P. Dunkle's Enchantment and Creed nudges these poems away from the margins of the combative prelate's sprawling oeuvre and closer to the core of his theology. Although the "battle of the basilicas" then waged between Ambrose and the Homoian court generated the context for the development and deployment of communal hymnody, Dunkle prefers to situate the hymns against the background of such contemporary catechetical sermons and mystagogical treatises as Ambrose's Explanatio symboli, De mysteriis, and De sacramentis. He argues that these finely-grained works, presented to competentes on the eve of their baptism or to neophytes soon afterwards, convincingly testify to Ambrose's inclination to refine the "spiritual senses" of his congregation by modeling and encouraging a synthetic, "mystical" understanding of "ritual experience, Scripture, and doctrinal identity" (83). In Dunkle's estimation, Ambrose's hymns reveal the same interests and motivations, and taken all together, therefore, the bishop's catechesis, mystagogy, and hymns "constitute strains of a common effort at enchantment" (83). For that reason, the hymns can only be fully appreciated when considered as one facet of the bishop's catechetical program broadly conceived. Consequently, that program, with its dual focus on enchantment—engendering a sensibility attuned to see the truth beyond the surface of rites and Scripture—and creedal orthodoxy, in adherence to the Nicene formula, provides the lens through which we, too, must read (or hear) the hymns. From this it follows as well that the hymns, publicly performed, would have spoken differently to the individuals who sang or listened to them. Only those already initiated into the mysteries and Ambrose's mystagogy would have been prepared to grasp their deeper meanings, meanings that, in fact, would escape most of his imitators as well. The heart of Enchantment and Creed is an explication, broad, deep, and engaging, of these claims.

Any synthetic study of Ambrose's hymns must take a stand on the age-old problem of separating the authentic from the imitative in the transmitted corpus. Dunkle acknowledges the problem at the outset (3-4) and faces it squarely throughout. His might be considered a generous assessment, accepting as genuine thirteen of the fourteen hymns (excluding only number 14, Aeterna Christi munera) that constitute the standard edition of which Jacques Fontaine was the general editor and whose individual editors were skeptical of the Ambrosian authorship of many of the hymns 1. The fundamental grounds for Dunkle's more positive judgements are established in the introduction (10-12: near contemporary citation, early manuscript witnesses, and style) and made specific, often with the support of recent Italian scholarship, for each hymn at the time of its introduction into the argument. Indeed, Dunkle hopes that his arguments for thematic unity will further validate the Ambrosian credentials of the thirteen hymns he studies (12). All fourteen hymns of the Fontaine edition are printed in an appendix and accompanied by English translations.

Chapters one and two of Enchantment and Creed provide background and context for assessing Ambrose's hymns. They survey and summarize the history of early Christian and late antique hymnody and analyze Ambrose's place within the tradition. Ambrose inherited models of congregationally chanted hymns as well as literary hymns, both of which he drew upon. Moreover, in the context of the ongoing debate over the beneficial or deleterious effects of song, Dunkle argues from Ambrose's own words (42-4) that Ambrose recognized and, as others have long noted, capitalized upon the power of communal hymns to forge group identity and solidarity. Yet, despite the bishop's debts to predecessors and interlocutors, Dunkle's Ambrose enhances his status as an innovator who influenced centuries of Latin hymnody because he also appreciated the power of song to inspire spiritual transformation. Moreover, as the second chapter shows, Ambrose's hymns were both literary and catechetical monuments. Their ability to appeal over the long run to a wide social spectrum was matched by a rhetorical prowess that insistently highlighted the complexities of rites, Scripture, and nature.

Chapter three, "Ambrose's Daytime Hymns and the Mystagogy of Nature," begins with a review of the metrical scheme of the Ambrosian hymn: eight stanzas of four lines in iambic dimeter, a meter once most closely associated with drama. Ambrose, however, also seems concerned to match word and metrical accent in a way that foretells the future of Latin prosody. Ambrose's verse, Dunkle suggests, was intended to appeal to "popular taste" as well as to classically trained ears (89). To the same end, perhaps, Ambrose blended scriptural language with Vergilian and Horatian phrases. The primary focus of the chapter, however, falls upon the four hymns that scholarly consensus links to performance at specific times of the day: Aeterne rerum conditur, Splendor paternae gloriae, Iam surgit hora tertia, and Deus creator omnium (Fontaine 1-4). Dunkle highlights the poetic devices, especially repetition through anaphora and polyptoton, and lexical choices that, as in Ambrose's preaching, worked to reform the senses and support a Nicene confession of faith. In the former case, Ambrose's mystagogical aim was, once again, to reveal the invisible and Christological realities behind such mundane phenomena as cockcrow and sunrise. In the latter, through "the single, evocative word or phrase" (99), Ambrose hinted at the Nicene contours of the Creation.

Chapters four and five pursue similar ends by similar means (assaying further instances of multivalent lexical repetition, for example). Chapter four explores Ambrose's three hymns dedicated to dominical feasts: Intende qui regis Israel for the Nativity; Illuminans altissimus for Epiphany; and Hic est dies verus dei for the Resurrection (Fontaine 5, 7, and 9). In these Dunkle shows how Ambrose applied overt paraphrase and reworking of biblical passages to emphasize "the equality and coeternity of the Father and the Son" (120). The hymns interweave Psalm paraphrase and gospel texts to make Christological (and Marian) statements, though without necessarily overriding the original Old Testament associations. In this way, the dominical hymns served as a "quasi-creedal" Nicene catechesis (142) emphatically centered upon the very feasts being celebrated. Eliding the gap between historical events and the performative present, these three hymns also show a marked tendency to stress the role of wonder and enchantment in deepening understanding of the mysteries being celebrated. The fifth chapter turns to seven hymns dedicated to the martyrs. Three hymns (Fontaine 8, 12, and 13) targeted Roman martyrs (Agnes, Peter and Paul, and Lawrence); two (Fontaine 9 and 10) concern the Milanese martyr groups Victor, Nabor, and Felix and Gervasius and Protasius; and another two (Fontaine 6 and 14) celebrated John the Evangelist and "all martyrs." Although these hymns have less often been studied as a group because of lingering questions of authenticity, Dunkle shows how taken together they both participate in general Ambrosian initiatives and share traits among themselves. Above all, in the context of the conflicts of the later 380s, Dunkle argues, they work to promote an equivalency between true Roman (and Milanese) civic identity and the profession of Nicene faith, a connection made especially clear (171-2) by the paraphrase of the prologue of John's Gospel at the center of Amore Christi nobilis. This has the double effect of further marginalizing the Homoian community and "baptizing" the traditional Roman values of pietas and pudor that are given emphasis in these hymns. At the same time, the martyr hymns indulge Ambrose's mystagogical agenda of highlighting the gap between surface appearance and hidden realities (e.g., Agnes's physical youth and spiritual maturity; Lawrence's assembled "wealth"). In the end, Dunkle's close reading in these three core chapters goes far towards situating Ambrose's hymns comfortably within the broader theological, ecclesial, and political ends of his episcopacy in ways that should encourage further reconsideration of the centrality of these performance texts.

Enchantment and Creed concludes with two chapters concerning the value of reception for further appreciating the particular qualities of Ambrose's hymnody. As Dunkle observes, "Ambrose's hymns were an immediate success" (174) One gauge of that success is the proliferation of imitations, an industry of ambrosiana. In the sixth chapter, Dunkle evaluates the eight-stanza Aeterna Christi munera and three shorter hymns for the "little hours." All have sometimes been assigned to Ambrose himself, though Dunkle argues, largely on the basis of stylistic discrepancies and theological divergence, for their status as early imitations. He draws attention to the many lexical debts they owe to the "authentic" hymns, a feature he dubs "centonization," but he notes their relatively unsophisticated use of repetition, their generic deployment of martyrial and ethical concepts, and their lack of interest in advancing the kind of pro-Nicene agenda characteristic of the truly Ambrosian material. Thus the relative shallowness of these imitations, most evident in borrowed vocabulary, casts into high relief the thick agenda of the Ambrosian hymns. Chapter seven turns to the iambic dimeter "literary showpieces" (186) of Sedulius and Prudentius, readers and emulators of Ambrose's hymns. Sedulius's twenty-three quatrain A solis ortus cardine redeploys Ambrosian vocabulary and through amplicatio, or expansion of detail and narrative, explicitly elaborates mysteries that Ambrose's poetics communicated more allusively. For Dunkle, however, Prudentius, poet of the Cathemerinon and Peristephanon, is Ambrose's most sophisticated early reader. Highly self-conscious in his rivalry, in poems from both collections (e.g., Ad galli cantum and the hymn for Lawrence) Prudentius spotlights "the mystagogy of nature and Scripture" (194) so central to Dunkle's reading of Ambrose; amplifies symbolic connections only latent, but still crucial, in the latter's hymns; and didactically unpacks symbolism. In these instances, Dunkle suggests, Prudentius's hyper-Ambrosianism (194, 197) functions as commentary on the Ambrosian corpus, exposing once more the sophistication and influence of his hymnody. Although "pagans" not Arians may be the focus of much of Prudentius's polemic, the Spanish poet finds Ambrose's diction and style no less appealing for that fact. At the same time, for Dunkle, Prudentius is the last literary poet truly to appreciate Ambrose's "spiritual reading" of nature and Scripture and his insistence upon "mystagogical enchantment" as the poet's as well as the reader's responsibility.

Enchantment and Creed is a closely argued and richly documented study. It is not without slips here and there. Kate Cooper becomes Catherine Cooper, for example; Caesarius of Arles, who appears in the text on several occasions but is absent from the index, seems once to bifurcate into "Caesarius and Aurelian" (183); and works cited in the notes do not always find their way into the bibliography (e.g., several essays by Jacques Fontaine). In addition, translations occasionally stumble over subjunctives (e.g., 6.22, 6.24, and 9.32). Those are small tradeoffs for a study that offers a comprehensive view of a corpus that has most often been approached piecemeal or through smaller groupings. Coincidentally, Dunkle raises the stakes for assessing the influence of Ambrose on Prudentius and later poets (e.g., 210). Most significantly, he adds fundamental new textures to Ambrose's reputation as the father of Christian Latin hymnody. If we ask how that literary and liturgical form grew out of the context of Milanese ecclesial rivalries and was shaped by the pastoral and theological concerns of Ambrose himself, Enchantment and Creed supplies a range of persuasive answers.


1.   Fontaine, Jacques, ed. Ambroise de Milan: Hymnes. Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf, 1992.

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