Milan – The Sant’ Ambrogio

When you visit Milan, there are a number of things you must see. The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio is one of them. The basilica has impressive interior proportions and a typical Lombard-Romanesque architectural style that is worth seeing! The museum next to the basilica also houses interesting pieces from Sant’Ambrogio. Sant’Ambrogio is not only the name of the patron saint of Milan, but also the name of a beautiful church!

The construction of the Sant’Ambrogio

Sant’Ambrogio is a basilica that was originally built by Bishop Ambrosius on a former early Christian cemetery. The church was built between the years 379 and 386. Saint Ambrose was a fierce advocate of orthodox Christianity and was against Arianism. When he died, the church was dedicated to him. He also became the patron saint of the city of Milan. Today, the basilica still houses the remains of Saint Ambrose. For this reason, the church is very special to the Milanese, especially because he is seen as the founder of the church. Source: Public domain, Wikimedia Commons (PD) Nowadays the church no longer looks as it did when it was built. The church owes its current appearance largely to the work done on the church in the 10th to 12th centuries. Benedictines from the region adapted the church in Lombardic-Romanesque style. This style was the most common during those centuries. Unfortunately, only the columns and the triumphal arch incorporated into the apse remain from the 4th century. The Benedictines already started expanding the church in the 8th and 9th centuries. An atrium was built, which would be rebuilt in the 12th century. The entire church was rebuilt in the 11th century. The reason for this was that the dome had collapsed at the end of the 11th century, and the vaults and pulpit had to be rebuilt. In 1492, the Sforza family commissioned Bramante to rebuild the priest’s house and the Benedictine monastery. The years surrounding the Second World War did not do the basilica any good. The basilica was severely damaged during bombings in 1943.


The bell tower, also called the campanile, is a good example of ‘cockerel behavior’. The tower of Sant’Ambrogio had to surpass the tower of the Benedictines in height and splendor! Another beautiful story can be derived from the so-called ‘Devil’s Column’; the Colonna del Diavolo. If you look closely you will see two holes in the column. Legend has it that these are the prints of the devil’s horns. The prints are said to have been created when the devil tried to win over Ambrosius, which of course did not work.


The original atrium was built in the 9th century by Archbishop Anspert. The 12th century rebuilt atrium served as a shelter before the city walls of Milan were built. When you walk across the atrium towards the church, pay attention to the columns on either side. On the capitals (some have their origins in the 11th century) of these columns you will find representations from the Bible and fantasy animals that represent Good and Evil. symbolize. Some columns date from Roman times. The atrium as we can still see it today dates from the 12th century. Optically, the atrium also has a function. As it were, it sets the facade further back, which makes the basilica appear even larger. In the atrium you can see archaeological finds from the early Christian cemetery located there. The main portal of the church is located in the narthex and dates from the 8th to 10th centuries. The columns here are also decorated with animal figures and the Mystic Lamb. The reliefs that can be seen on the doors depict the life of David. These reliefs were made around 1750.

The interior

When you enter the church, it is best to walk to the nave of the church to take in the interior with all its splendor. At the beginning of the ship is the so-called ‘serpent column’, which is said to have been erected by Moses in the desert. To the left of this column you will see an excavation pit showing the level of the original 4th century Church of Saint Ambrose. The pulpit was rebuilt after the dome collapsed in the late 11th century. Yet the current pulpit is made of pieces that were not broken after the fall of the dome. The pulpit is decorated with an eagle and a seated man. These two figures symbolize John and Matthew. Under the pulpit is Stilicho’s 4th century coffin decorated with reliefs. You can see reliefs showing Christ delivering the law to Peter, and reliefs showing scenes from the Old Testament, Christ among the apostles and the sacrifice of Isaac. The coffin is attributed to Stilicho. Under the octagonal dome of the basilica is the so-called ciborium. This ciborium is actually the canopy for the Golden Altar. The ciborium dates from the 10th century and, as it were, protects the Golden Altar. It rests on four Roman porphyry columns and is decorated with stucco. The altar dates from the 9th century and was richly decorated by order of Archbishop Angilberto by a certain Volvinius. This altar was made as a shrine for the remains of Saint Ambrose. At the back of the altar you will find a relief of the life of Sant’Ambrogio signed by the artist himself. There are also two small doors there. Behind those doors used to be the remains of Saint Ambrose. The front of the altar is completely covered with gold and gemstones and is about the life of Christ. Today, the remains of Saint Ambrose are located under the Golden Altar itself. The remains of Gervasio and Protasie are also located in the urn under the Altar. Behind the ciborium you will find the wooden choir. In the middle you will find the bishop’s seat (4th and 9th century). Many Italian kings were crowned on this seat! At the top of the apse you will see a large mosaic, which dates from the 6th and 8th centuries. The scene on the left (Christ blessing) also comes from this period. The right side is not authentic and has been partly reconstructed after the bomb damage of 1943.

The museum – Museo della Basilica

The entrance to the museum, which borders Sant’Ambrogio, is at the end of the northern aisle of the church. This is called the Portico della Canonica; the portico of the presbytery. This portico was supposed to be designed by Bramante, but he never completed the work. The portico was rebuilt after the Second World War. The columns of the central arch of the portico resemble tree trunks. This is the entrance to the museum, which contains six rooms where objects and works of art from the church can be found. There are plenty of interesting pieces to view in the museum, but certainly worth seeing include:

  • Ambrose’s bed
  • Fragments of the apse mosaic
  • Four wooden panels from the 4th century portal
  • Bernardo Zenale’s triptych from the 15th century
  • Sigismonds Oratory (found in the garden), famous since 1096 (with beautiful 15th century frescoes and Roman columns)

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