Churches of Milan, history and anecdotes
What a wonder it is! So grand, so solemn, so vast! And yet so delicate, so airy, so graceful! A very world of solid weight, and yet it seems …a delusion of frostwork that might vanish with a breath! – Mark Twain
The churches of Milan all have a common denominator. They are all beautiful. The architectural style of the Lombard-Romanesque and Baroque churches of Milan makes most of these places of worship actual monuments, which, despite their religious value, are definitely worth visiting.
The Cathedrals and Churches of Milan are obviously representations of the Kirk and of Faith, but also of a secular religiosity wanted and lived by the enlightened dynasties that have ruled Milan. The Visconti and Sforza families have contributed, at their own expense, to the construction of many churches and cathedrals, but also palaces, villas and castles. The churches of Milan are a rich monumental and cultural wealth of the city, a heritage that the city has always recognized, regardless of creeds and Faith.
If it were possible, but it is not, we would like to make a suggestion: visit the main churches we are going to describe now, and leave the Duomo for last. Because the Duomo is a whole other story, different from all the others, with its late Gothic style which makes it much more resemble the typical cathedrals of northern Europe than the churches built in the city from the 4th century onwards.
In Milan there are more than 200 churches, some of which are very peculiar. In the following page, we are going to describe the most important, the most famous, talking about their history and adding some curiosities, small factors that make them more … earthly. The Duomo of Milan, as we have suggested, has been kept for last.
A visit at the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, between the sacred and the profane
After the Duomo, Milan’s most famous church is the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio. The story goes that Ambrose, who lived between 340 and 397, initially refused his investiture as bishop of Milan, to the point that in order to discredit himself, he made no secret of the fact he frequented prostitutes. However, the Assembly wanted him, a Catholic in belief, instead of an Arian, and so Ambrose was forced to accept the position he then held in the best way and always doing good for the citizens, especially the poorest.
The beautiful church of Sant’Ambrogio is therefore a tribute to a great man who blessed the lives of Milanese people: faithful and pilgrims devoted to the Saint fill the church still today. The church is a fine example of Romanesque-Lombard architecture, finished in 386, with three naves, vaulted ceiling and pillars that rise it upwards. Impossible not to admire the magnificent altar-shaped tomb, a masterpiece of Carolingian goldsmiths, made of wood covered with decorated gold plates. The altar dates from the middle of 1800, while the pipe organ dates back to 1951.
Do not miss the apse mosaic, made between the 6th and 9th centuries. Damaged by bombing during World War II, after restoration the mosaic appears today in all its splendor, and depicts a scene of Christ seated on a throne between Saints Gervasio and Protaso and the archangels Michael and Gabriel. Inside the Basilica, there’s a chapel dedicated to St. Victor, with a beautiful decorated ceiling: on the sides, between the images of saints and bishops, there’s also a portrait of Saint Ambrose, considered one of the most realistic ever.
Outside, in addition to the two bell towers, the lower one dates back to the 8th century, the higher one to 1144, on the left side of the square stands a column called “Colonna del Diavolo” that has two holes near the base. Legend has it that during a struggle between the Saint and the Devil, the latter remained stuck in the column while he was trying to stab Ambrose with his horns. One more curiosity regards another granite column of the Basilica, which bears the bronze sculpture of a snake on its capital. This is Moses’ Snake, to whom the faithful address prayers for salvation and who will mark the end of the world on the day when it will come to life and climb down the column.
Santa Maria delle Grazie and the charm of the Last Supper
Santa Maria delle Grazie, Basilica and Sanctuary , as well as World Heritage Site, is famous throughout the world because the refectory of its convent, next to the church, holds Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece The Last Supper.
Santa Maria delle Grazie dates back to the second half of 1400, and stands out as a beautiful, multifaceted architecture topped by an imposing dome. The interior of the church, in the Gothic style, is full of wonderful frescoes and monuments commissioned by the Lords who ruled Milan: Ludovico il Moro made it the tomb of the Sforza family. Among the notable architects who worked on the building and subsequent transformation of the church it is definitely worth mentioning Bramante.
The church was badly damaged by Allied bombing during World War II (August 15th, 1943): even the refectory was destroyed except, miraculously, the wall of the Cenacle.
Worthy of being elected as World Heritage by UNESCO, the Last Supper of Jesus in the refectory of Santa Maria delle Grazie is a painting on plaster dating back to the end of 1400. It’s a masterpiece of Italy’s Renaissance period, last restored between 1997 and 1999.
Nowadays, the Cenacle is visited by over 350,000 tourists a year, who book tours months in advance. The interpretation of Leonardo’s work goes beyond the simple representation of the Last Supper. The work depicts the precise moment in which Jesus declares that one of the apostles will betray him: the news spreads like a wave on the table, leaving the guests bewildered and stunned. According to the most accredited interpretations, the story of the Last Supper is told in the Gospel of John. Noteworthy is the figure of Judah (the third to the right of Jesus) who struck by the words of Christ, already holding his 30 silver pieces, moves back and knocks over a salt shaker.
Among the most daring interpretations, instead, the more recent Dan Brown who, in his novel The Da Vinci Code, supporting previous interpretations by Lynn Picknett and Clive Prince, says that the figure of John, the first apostle to the right of Jesus, is actually Mary Magdalene, lover of Christ. Whatever you think, Leonardo’s Last Supper is a unique work of art, despite the copies existing in many other churches in Italy and around the world.
Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio, to prevent headache
The Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio is one of the oldest churches in Milan. Dates from the 4th century, although the current structure dates back to the 19th century.
Tradition has it that the church was built by Bishop Eustorgio on the day when the cart carrying the relics of the Magi got stuck in that point: the wheels were blocked, the horses and oxen couldn’t go ahead. So Eustorgio decided that the relics would remain in that place. After the city was sacked in 1227, Frederik Barbarossa moved the sacred remains to Cologne: in 1906, some remains returned to Milan and are now preserved in a reliquary within the church.
The architectural complex of Sant’Eustorgio consists of three naves Romanesque style. Inside there are several chapels, the most famous of which are the Brivio Chapel (1484), and the Portinari Chapel (1462). The valuable decor on the walls was painted by Vincenzo Foppa in the second half of 1400.
On the day of the Epiphany, a costume parade headed by the Magi traditionally reaches the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio, after departing from Piazza del Duomo. An ancient tradition has it that the archbishops who serve in Milan may enter the city from Porta Ticinese and the first church they must visit is just the one on Piazza Sant’Eustorgio. The Portinari Chapel becomes a place of pilgrimage on the last Sunday of April. The faithful and pilgrims line up to ask St. Pietro Rosini to preserve them from headache. Pietro Rosini, a preacher of the Order of the Dominicans, was beaten to death on the head: to receive the grace, one must rub a hat (or a veil, or a headscarf) on the glass urn which holds the head of the saint.
Duomo: spires, stained glass windows and statues dominated by the Madonnina
The Duomo of Milan is a source of pride for all the people of Milan, whether believers or not. In Piazza del Duomo, dozens of generations of students, friends and lovers have gathered throughout the centuries. Millions and millions of tourists, over the years, have been fascinated by the forest of spires and statues on the top of the cathedral. Billions of photographs have been taken of this amazing work of man standing in the city centre since 1400.
Tourists who exit the subway and find the facade of the Duomo standing right in front of them for the first time, can only be amazed by the wonderful show. Spires, stained glass, statues, windows, doors, the large porch… you don’t even know what to look at first, you can only take your time and admire the beauty of each and every detail of this late Gothic architecture. The Duomo is a church dedicated to Santa Maria Nascente (Saint Mary Nascent), and bears both a Christian and pagan spirit in its DNA, that something that has distinguished Milan in the last 600 years. Looking at the thousands of statues, busts, sculptures, coats of arms, decorations, and engravings, you can glimpse anything ranging from sacred images to the icons of secularism and of nature, including flowers, animals, but also important elements of the history of Milan.
Over the top of all this, at a height of more than 100 meters, dominates the Madonnina, so small and apparently fragile seen from below, but which boasts a backbone of steel, a coating of several kilos of gold and is especially more than 4 meters high.
The Duomo of Milan has always been considered a ‘Factory’, a work in progress that requires frequent maintenance. The Venerable Factory of the Duomo of Milan, established in 1387 by Gian Galeazzo Visconti, still has the main task to raise funds for the maintenance and enhancement of this important World Heritage Site. In the last twenty years, the cathedral has been often shrouded in scaffolding to remove residuals due to pollution and in 2012, through a self-financed initiative of the city called “Adopt a Spire” the Duomo has undergone improvements for safety and restoration of the spires. The names of those that even with a single Euro have joined the initiative are engraved on marble slabs for future reference.
There are thousands of works inside the Duomo of Milan which should be observed in detail and studied closely. For tourists who have at least a couple of hours available to visit this magnificent cathedral, here is a list of the not-to-be-missed details. But first, some historical curiosities.
Curiosities about the Venerable Factory of the Duomo
One night, in 1386, the Devil in person appeared to Gian Galeazzo Visconti, Lord of Milan. Satan ordered the Milanese nobleman to build a church filled with demonic images otherwise he would have stolen his soul. Frightened, Gian Galeazzo immediately set to work. With the establishment of the Venerable Factory of the Duomo, the church ordered by Satan became an international affair. That’s why the Duomo’s architectural style is not typically Lombard, but rather a late-Gothic Rhenish-Bohemian style.
The marble for the construction of the cathedral comes from the quarries of Candoglia in Val d’Ossola. Each block of marble, transported by water using the many canals scattered around the city at the time, was marked with the Latin acronym Auf, Ad Usum Fabricae, and freed from taxes and fees. That’s why still today in Milan the expression ad ufo is used to say that something has been taken or used without paying for it.
Milan’s Duomo is located on the former site of the Basilica of Santa Tecla, whose remains can still be visited: entering from the front door of the Duomo, there are two staircases, left and right, leading to the dungeons.
Must-see during a visit to the Duomo of Milan
Inside and outside the Duomo of Milan, there are about 3500 statues in total. The cathedral covers an area of nearly 12,000 square meters, it’s the fourth in Europe for extension. The stained glass windows of the Duomo are lit from the inside, a unique feature in the world with regards to large churches. The central porch of the Duomo dates back to 1800 and was sculpted by Ludovico Pogliaghi. The statue of the Virgin Mary, instead, dates back to 1774, and was crafted by sculptor Giuseppe Perego.
Inside the Duomo, walking along the first nave on the right, you will bump into the Nivola, a suspended structure shaped like a basket: it is a rudimentary lift, now electric, but once operated by ropes, which allows the Bishop of Milan to reach the vault of the apse, where one of the Holy Nails with which Christ was crucified, recovered by St. Ambrose, is kept.
Near the Nivola, you can see a hole in the vault from which the sun light comes in: it is the Oculus of the Duomo’s meridian. This dates back to 1780. During the Summer Solstice, on June 21st, the ray of light strikes a bronze mark on the floor. On December 21st, the winter solstice, the light reaches the Meridian on the opposite wall. The Meridian of the Duomo was the astronomical reference for the Prime Meridian until 1884, when it was replaced by Greenwich, England. Always in name of the ambivalent character of the Duomo, both Christian and pagan, the Sundial is engraved with zodiac symbols.
A must see within the Duomo is St. Bartholomew statue. It stands in front of the Medici Family Mausoleum and shows the Saint carrying his own skin over his shoulder, a result of flaying during his martyrdom. It’s both fascinating and disturbing: in the past it was placed in the courtyard of the Cathedral, but then it was brought inside because it disturbed the eyes of passer-bys.
The Treasury of the Duomo, is accessible via a staircase near the southern sacristy, and includes some valuable objects related to the life and construction of the Cathedral. Other objects and relevant documents are kept in the Duomo’s Museum.
Finally, of course, you cannot miss a climb to the terraces of the Cathedral, where you can look closely at the dozens of statues, but also admire a unique view over Milan, with the Alps on the horizon in sunny days.