Saint Ambrose Basilica (Italian: Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio) is a church in Milan, Italy, dedicated to Saint Ambrose of Milan.
Testimony to sixteen centuries of history and a masterpiece of Lombard and Milanese Romanesque art, the basilica was built from 379 by Ambroise in order to deposit the bodies of Christian martyrs. Although the building has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, and if very little of the original church remains, the current structure is Romanesque and some of the stones come from the walls of the Roman enclosure and the circus .
Ambroise would have had the revelation, during a dream, of the place where Saint Nazaire of Milan, who went to preach the gospel in Gaul, had been buried in a garden outside the city. The body was reportedly exhumed and transported to the Basilica of the Holy Apostles. The relic of Saint Nazaire is believed to still be in the Saint-Ambrose basilica.
Built between 379 and 386 on the site of a “Martyrs’ Cemetery” outside the city walls, the original church was enlarged and transformed in the 8th and 9th centuries. The Benedictines1 built a convent next to the church at the end of the 8th century2.
The basilica took on its final appearance between 1088 and 1099, when Bishop Anselmo III decided to restore it according to the plans of the original Romanesque architecture.
Between 1128 and 1144, the second bell tower, which is to the left of the facade, was built.
In 1492, Donato Bramante began construction of the cloister and a portico, but the work was interrupted when his boss Ludovico Il Moro was ousted from Milan. After being damaged during the bombardments of WWII in 1943, Bramante’s work was restored in 1955 and finally completed by Ferdinando Reggiori.
The church of Saint-Ambrose is built well below the current level of the street and seems hidden behind the atrium with Romanesque capitals with colonnades which precedes the entrance to the building and serves as the entrance courtyard of the church. The atrium, named Atrium Ansperto after Archbishop Anspert commissioned it, was built in the 11th century as a shelter for pilgrims, replacing an older atrium from the 9th century. It is placed around a gallery and dominated by the five arches on the triangular facade of the church3.
There are two towers which are clearly visible from the atrium. The highest, on the left, is known as the Campanile dei Canonici (Bell Tower of the Canons) and was built in the 11th century. The smaller tower, on the right, is the Campanile dei Monaci, “Clocher des Moines”, built earlier by the Benedictines in the ninth century.
The porticoes around the atrium were mostly rebuilt after WWII, and the portico of the narthex is decorated with animal motifs and topped by a loggia with five arches.
The large portal is formed from fragments dating back to a period between the ninth and twelfth centuries. The wooden door retains some original features and two bronze leaves from the 9th century. It is carved with two lion heads for handles.
The capitals of the atrium, testimonies of Milanese Romanesque sculptural art of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, often represent domestic animals, fantastic and monstrous creatures.
The interior of the church is made up of three naves and three apses, lit by sunlight. The choir is deep and surmounted by a dome3. There is a 12th century ambon decorated with rare gilded copper carvings dating back to the 12th century. In the naves of the church there are several chapels. The most important are: the Chapel of San Vittore in Ciel d´Oro, the Chapel of the Sacred Heart, the Chapel of Saints Bartolomeo and Satiro, the Chapel of the Deposition and the Chapel of Saint George.
The choir, built between 1469 and 1471 by Lorenzo da Origgio, Giacomo da Torre and Giacomo del Manico and originally composed of 26 canopy seats including one reserved for the abbot, 8 seats without canopy and 24 minor seats, is destroyed. seriously during World War II. A masterpiece of Carolingian art and the Lombard Renaissance, it is surrounded by four red porphyry columns of ancient origin, themselves topped with ninth-century stucco, the whole forming a canopy ciborium. Episodes from the life of Ambroise are exhibited at the end of the choir: on one side, Saint Ambrose, flanked by Gervais and Protais, receives homage from two bishops. At the end of the central apse, there is a mosaic dating from the 7th and 8th centuries but extensively altered in the 18th – 19th centuries, depicting Christ surrounded by saints and Milanese martyrs.
The crypt, built in the second half of the tenth century, preserves the remains of the three saints Ambrose, Gervais and Protais in a 19th century silver and crystal hunt. The silver urn (made by Giovanni Lomazzi) with the sacred remains of Ambrose is located exactly below the gold altar. Ambrose’s body, in the middle, is dressed in papal vestments; at his side, the two martyrs, Gervais and Protais, have golden crowns with palm branches, a symbol of martyrdom. Ambroise himself decides in 386 to recover the remains of the two martyrs and to place them above the altar; on his death in 397, the bishop was buried there.
Chapel of San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro
The most notable chapel in the church is the Chapel of San Vittore in Ciel d´Oro. It was built in the 4th century as a separate structure to contain the remains of Saint Victor, a local martyr who died in 303. The ceiling of the chapel is decorated with 5th century mosaics depicting Saints Ambrose, Gervais and Protais.
Legends and traditions
As you leave the basilica, there is the “Devil’s Column”, recognizable by the two holes it presents in its lower part. Legend has it that the devil, while trying to pierce Saint Ambrose, missed him and pierced the marble column in two places corresponding to his two horns. The devil would then have turned into sulfur2.
In front of the church, since 1866, every year on December 7 (the day of Saint Ambrose) takes place the flea market (called in Italian Fiera degli Oh Bej! Oh bej! Because of the shouts of the vendors).
Royce Hall at the University of California at Los Angeles is inspired by the facade of St. Ambrose Church.
The first act of the Lombards in the First Crusade of Giuseppe Verdi takes place in the Basilica of Saint-Ambrose.
The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, a pillar of Italian sacred art
The Sant’Ambrogio Basilica is one of the oldest churches in the Roman Catholic world. Its splendid architecture is a model of Italian Romanesque art. A museum is dedicated to the sacred art and the history of this unique site.
Milan and its churches
During your stay in Milan, be sure to look up to the sky to admire the many domes and bell towers that dot this Italian metropolis. A whole cultural and architectural heritage tells you the history of the city, from the first Christian churches to the sumptuous Renaissance palaces. Take the time for a stroll, your steps will lead you to the most beautiful testimony of this rich past, a magnificent basilica dedicated to the patron saint and former bishop of the city, Saint-Ambroise. Today it is the 2nd church in Milan, just after the cathedral.
The Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, a precious architecture
The basilica is reached by metro line 2, at the Sant’Ambrogio stop, or by bus lines 50, 58 and 94. The visit to the building is free. From the outside, the building’s architecture powerfully tells the story of the first centuries of Romanesque constructions. We notice in the distance its incredible rectangular entrance and its magnificent sculpted capitals. Inside, the sacred atmosphere is enriched by masterpieces of Romanesque art, frescoes and exceptional mosaics. In its choir, an altar in the shape of a sarcophagus is surmounted by a marvelous Byzantine stucco canopy. Admire the representation of Saint-Ambrose in the apse before taking a well-deserved break. In the square, at 23, the Milano Wine Garden will extend this exquisite atmosphere with a tasting of very good Italian wines.
A museum of sacred art at the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio
The basilica houses a museum of sacred art not to be missed. It preserves admirable pieces of art and history testifying to the rich spiritual and religious history of the place. Some of these precious objects are more than 1,700 years old, such as these sculpted Madonnas or these mosaics recounting the daily life of men. The price of the visit is fixed at 2 €. This museum, all in marble and filled with gilding, closes with pomp this unforgettable excursion.
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