When I entered the large courtyard of the basilica in Milan, I thought that this must be one of the most beautiful Romanesque buildings I had ever seen. I reminded myself that I was looking at one of the oldest churches in Milan, built by Saint Ambrose in the fourth century over a cemetery for martyrs. Saint Ambrose had built four churches, then situated outside the walls of the city. A monastery was located there from 789, housing two different monastic communities who had each built a bell tower.
The current appearance stemmed from a 12th century transformation into Lombard Romanesque style. In 1528, The Peace of St. Ambrose had been penned there between the nobility and the populace. Kings of Italy and emperors of the Holy Roman Empire had been crowned there during Romanesque and medieval times. There was 15th century renovation carried out by Donato Bramante, who had served as architect of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In August of 1943, the basilica was bombed, causing much damage to the apse and other areas. Restoration had worked wonders.
Standing in the atrium, I concentrated on the exterior. The red brick color of the Romanesque architecture was stunning. I saw a portico with arches supported by semi-columns and pilasters. The portico entrance included four blind arcades. The main portal hailed from the 8th to 10th century. One side of the atrium included upper and lower loggias. I looked at the pillars surrounded by semi-columns with lavish capitals adorned with lions, angels and vegetable motifs, to name a few. These were older than the Romanesque elements. I saw the two bell towers, one from the 9th century and a higher one from the 12th century. I gazed at the white marble Devil’s Column, which, according to legend, had two holes made by the Devil’s horns after he was unsuccessful at tempting Saint Ambrose. Tombstones from the former cemetery there also stood outside the entrance.
Inside, I saw a 12th century nave with two side aisles that had stunning arcades. The ceiling had remarkable 12th century ribbed vaults, and I saw galleries above the aisles. I loved the Romanesque brickwork of the pillars. It made both the interior and exterior dynamic. There was no transept. I noticed the Serpent’s Column, which was supposedly built by Moses.
I stared at the apse with its 13th century mosaic of Christ Pantocrator or creator of all. At the sides were scenes featuring the life of Saint Ambrose. A gilded domed ceiling caught my attention as did mosaics on walls dating from the 5th century.
The pulpit was for me perhaps the most intriguing part of the church. It hailed from the 12th century and boasted two gilt copper reliefs showing an eagle and seated man, symbolizing apostles John and Matthew. The base of the pulpit was the fourth century sarcophagus of Stilicho with amazing reliefs from the Old Testament. I also noticed Apollo riding a chariot.
Also, I gazed at the 10th century ciborium which was painted with reliefs showing Christ, Saint Ambrose, Saint Benedict and Saint Scholastica. It included four columns in red porphyry and a canopy. The Golden Altar, another highlight for me, dated from the 9th century. The front showed off masterful goldsmithing skills and was adorned with precious stones. Scenes from the life of Christ decorated this side as well. The back included a silver relief celebrating the life of Saint Ambrose. The bishop’s throne hailed from the 9th and 14th centuries. I imagined the kings of Italy seated on the throne during their coronation ceremonies. Wow!
The oratory contained the relics of Saint Vittore and Saint Satiro, who was Saint Ambrose’s brother. The San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro sacellum featured a chapel to Saint Vittore. It was adorned with 5th century mosaics, with the bust of San Vittore making an appearance. The walls were striking in blue and showed six saints. The tomb of Emperor Louis II, who passed in 875, was also in the church. The chapels contained paintings by Tiepolo and Bernardo Luini, for example. In the crypt were the remains of saints Ambrose, Gervasus and Protasus.
The six-room museum included artwork and objects related to the church. Some of the highlights were Saint Ambrose’s bed and a cast of Stilicho’s sarcophagus. I also saw mosaics and triptychs.
Finally, I left the basilica, still stunned by the Romanesque pillars with delightful capitals and sarcophagus from 400 AD under the pulpit as well as the golden altar with its precious stones. The Christ Pantocrater mosaic bewitched me. The museum, too, had been more than intriguing. I gazed at the exterior from the atrium, entranced. My next stop was the Church of Saint Maurizio, where I would be overwhelmed by beauty once more.
Tracy A. Burns is a writer, proofreader and editor in Prague.