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Discovering the mysteries of Milan: the Cathedral and the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio

Discovering the two most important religious buildings of the city of Milan. From the unmistakable Gothic style of the Cathedral to the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, the Lombardy capital has many mysteries to be told. The frenzy of the metropolis shatters the austere walls of its mystical buildings. 


Milan Cathedral 

The Milan Cathedral (Basilica Cattedrale Metropolitana della Natività della Beata Vergine Maria) is located at the center of the homonymous square. This is the biggest Italian church and it is known in all the World for its wonderful International Gothic style. The construction works started in 1386 and were firstly solicited by the Duke Gian Galeazzo Visconti. For the realization of the work, the Lord of Milan called the most important architects and masters of the period. The construction works lasted for centuries and, after several vicissitudes, ended with the facade, in 1805. Definitely, the construction of the Cathedral needed more than four centuries! 


Cathedral style

An International Gothic style, with a Bohemian inspiration, essentially charaterizes the Cathedral, although it was reworked overtime. The plan has a Latin cross, with five naves and a transept with three naves. Gigantic and fascinating pillars, which lead to the interior of the building, sustain the whole structure, giving it a particular atmosphere. Extraordinary is also the chromatic effect of the long and narrow windows, which project externally towards the Gothic spiers and the pinnacles. Overall, the Cathedral counts 55 monumental glass windows, work of the biggest master glassmakers of that time. 




The facade is the portion of the building that mostly reflects the stylistic solutions adopted overtime. The original Gothic structure was modified with the Baroque or Renaissance influences. It represents a compromise between the vertical momentum, typical of the Gothic from beyond the Alpes, and the horizontal stretch out of the Lombardy tradition. The facade presents an impressive series of statues and bas-reliefs, most of which are now preserved in the neighbor Cathedral Museum. 


Facade, detail


Right side panel


Cathedral Museum, original statues and gargoyle



Monumental glass windows at the Cathedral Museum

The sundial 

Near the entrance of the Cathedral there is an extraordinary sundial, work of the Brera artists in 1786. It is composed by a brass strip embedded in the floor. At noon a ray of light projects exactly in the sundial, crossing a gnomon placed on the Southern wall. It indicates the winter and summer solstice, as well as the corresponding Zodiac sign. 





The Madonnina

Famous is the Madonnina of the Cathedral. It is a gilded copper statue, located in 1774 in the highest place of the building. With its 4,16 meters of height, the work was made by the sculptor Giuseppe Perego. 


Madonnina of the Cathedral between the spiers


A complex hypogeum in the Cathedral 

Recently, the remains of an ancient Early Christian complex were found below the Cathedral. These were two cathedrals: Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Tecla, located in correspondence to the apse area of the current Cathedral. 


Early Christian mosaic at Santa Tecla


Remains of the apse are of Santa Tecla under the Cathedral


The Basilica of Santa Maria Maggiore (Basilica Vetus) was the winter cathedral of the bishropic, whilst Santa Tecla was the summer one. The starting of the construction of the Basilica Vetus could have started immediately after the Milan edict, by the emperor Constantine in 313. Thirty years later the Basilica of Santa Tecla, or Maior, was erected. 

When in 1386 the Milanese decided to construct the current Cathedral, the preexisting religious buildings were progressively dismantled. Today, it is possible to admire some remains of the Basilica Maior in the underground of the new building churchyard. Santa Tecla should have had a considerable importance in the 4th century, since here the emperor Constance II held a council for getting accepted the Aryan faith of the Church. 


Remains of the Baptistery at the Fonti di Santa Tecla


Ancient tomb at Santa Tecla




Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio

The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio is one of the anciest religious building of the city of Milan. Anciently known as Basilica Martyrum, it was erected at the end of the 4th century (386) by the will of the bishop of the city, Ambrogio. In fact, this latter wanted the consecration of the building where the first martyrs, like San Felice, San Gervasio, Santa Valeria and others, were killed. Only in 397 Ambrogio was buried there, then the name of the Basilica was changed.


Entrance to the complx of Sant’Ambrogio




Internal pulpit


Architecture and symbolism of the Basilica

The Basilica of sant’Ambrogio faithfully preserves the original Early Christian structure. It is composed by three naves with transpet. A big apse is internally decorated with an extraordinary mosaic: the Enthroned Redeemer between the martyrs Protasio and Gervasio and with the archangels Michael and Gabriel. 


Prothyrum and the apse mosaic


The entrance to the Basilica is composed by a quadriporticus where, in the past, the city assemblies and the religious functions were held. This is composed by a repeated series of elegant pillars with semicolumns, which are connected with geometric arches. Interesting are the decorative motifs of the capitals, which often recall particular symbolic elements and could be a work by the Comacine Masters





Element of the portico


The quadriporticus gives an access to the gabled faced, composed by two superimposed loggias. Relevant are also the decorative elements which encircle the portals. Among them, it is possible to identify a series of beautiful knots. The Basilica has two bell towers, known as of canons and the monks. 


Main portal






Architrave of one the entrance portal



Some Solomon’s Knots placed internally to the building


Above the main portal, it is visible a unique symbolic element. It is a chessboard, composed by an alternance of white and red boxes. The same element is present inside the building and on the facade, for a total of four specimens. There are only few examples of a chessboard in a religious building. This makes the specimens of Sant’Ambrogio as an unicum for what concerning the symbolism. 





Hypothesis on the symbology of the chessboard 

Several hypothesis were suggested about the presence of a chessboard on the facade of a so important religious building. Someone has pointed out that there is a link between the Basilica of Sant’Ambogio and the Knights Templar, since the symbolism of the chessboard could recall them. However, no valid evidences were found. According to this vision, the chessboards were inserted after 1133, when the building was under the control of the Cistercian monks, led by San Bernardo of Chiaravalle. In fact, this latter was the curator of the Rule that the Templars had adopted. According to some scholars, the Knights could have led San Bernardo during his arrival in Milan, taking with them a new Eastern game: the chessboard. 


Slab of the Cistercian monks on the facade


Instead, most probable is that the alternance between the white and red boxes (red for a stylistic question, since the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio was built with poor materials, among them the characteristic bricks) recalls the contraposition between good and evil. In this sense, the chessboard could represent the eternal fights between the celestial and the devil forces, in which Christ wins. The mosaic located in the apsidal catin shows a enthroned Jesus with, behind, the same decorative element. 


To be noted the chessboard behind Christ


Moses snake

According to the tradition, on a granite column inside the Basilica, there is the Moses snake. In fact, this could be the bronze sculpture which the prophet erected during the long wander of the Israelites in the desert. The Scriptures [1] tells that God decided to punish the elected people due to the several complaints for the hardness of the travel, sending venomous snakes. Nonetheless, those who were bitten, could have saved themselves by looking at the bronze sculpture of the Moses snake. The artifact preserved in Sant’Ambrogio is, in reality, a gift by the emperor Basilio in 1007. Nevertheless, many people still believe that the bronze snake is patiently waiting for the end of the World from the top of the column. When the time is ripe, it will get alive and will crawl to the ground, as a warning sign of the final judgement. 


Moses snake



Devil column 

Sideways to the Basilica of Milan, on the left side, there is a column that, over the centuries, was the object of a curious legend. In fact, it was the testimony of a terrible fight between Sant’Ambrogio and the devil. The column (known as of the devil) could have the sign of the fight, so much so that the devil stuck his horns into it by mistake, leaving two visible holes. 

In reality, the column has a historical importance since near it, in the past, the Germanic emperors were crowned. 


Devil column



Samuele Corrente Naso

(Translation by Daniela Campus)



[1] Esodo.

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