Milan’s Backyard Bone House: The Ossuary Chapel at San Bernardino alle Ossa


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I prefer Milan’s bone house to Rome’s.

Bone House 1rRome’s famous Capuchin Crypt attracts the tourists, but Milan’s ossuary chapel at San Bernardino alle Ossa more than satisfies the macabre imagination – and it’s free.   Today, the ossuary of San Bernardino alle Ossa is a seventeenth-century square chapel whose interior walls are almost entirely covered with the bones of the Milanese dead – mostly prisoners, monks and hospital patients.

In 1145, a hospital – and soon afterwards a cemetery – was built adjacent to the Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore. In 1210, once the cemetery became full, the first ossuary was built to accommodate the growing pile of bones, and in 1268, a small chapel was added to the ossuary. In 1642, the church tower of the Basilica di Santo Stefano Maggiore collapsed, causing extensive damage to the thirteenth-century complex. The hospital closed in 1652.

The current ossuary, finished in 1695, was designed in the rococo style by Giovanni Andrea Biffi (d. 1630). Its interior walls were decorated with five hundred years of human bones, including fresh victims of the Great Plague of Milan (1629-1631). The ceiling fresco, Triumph of Souls and Flying Angels, is the work of Sebastiano Ricci (d. 1734). As reviews go, the chapel at San Bernardino alle Ossa has been described as successfully blending a sense of the macabre with the grace of the rococo.

Bone House 3rThe larger complex, including the main sanctuary, was designed and expanded by Carlo Giuseppe Merlo (d. 1760) in 1754. The church is dedicated to San Bernardino of Sienna (May 20).


 Imitation is flattery especially for ossuaries: Milan’s bone house inspired the Capela dos Ossos in Évora, Portugal.

 ‘Nós ossos que aqui estamos, pelos vossos esperamos’

‘We bones that are here, for your bones we wait’

–     Capela dos Ossos, Évora, Portugal


Mark Twain makes no mention of San Bernardino alle Ossa in the account of his 1867 visit to Milan. He captured, though, his impressions of Rome’s Capuchin Crypt, located underneath the Church of Santa Maria della Concezione del Cappuccini.

The crypt contains the skeletal remains of some four thousand Capuchin friars. Its floor is covered in dirt from the Holy Land brought to Rome upon the orders of Pope Urban VIII (d. 1644). Rome’s skeletal Capuchins lay in wait for the final Resurrection, half buried in the sacred soil of the Holy Land. They couldn’t be happier.

According to Twain:

‘Here [at the Capuchin Crypt] was a spectacle for sensitive nerves! . . . There were six divisions in the apartment, and each division was ornamented with a style of decoration peculiar to itself – and these decorations were in every instance formed of human bones!

‘There were shapely arches, built wholly of thigh bones; there were startling pyramids, built wholly of grinning skulls; there were quaint architectural structures of various kinds, built of shin bones and the bones of the arm; on the wall were elaborate frescoes, whose curving vines were made of knotted human vertebrae; whose delicate tendrils were made of sinews and tendons; whose flowers were formed of knee-caps and toe-nails.

‘Every lasting portion of the human frame was represented in these intricate designs, and there was a careful finish about the work, and an attention to details that betrayed the artist’s love of his labors as well as his schooled ability. I asked the good-natured monk who accompanied us, who did this? And he said, “We did it” – meaning himself and his brethren upstairs. I could see that the old friar took a high pride in his curious show. We made him talkative by exhibiting an interest we never betrayed to guides.

“Who were these people?”

“We – up stairs – monks of the Capuchin order – my brethren.”

“How many departed monks were required to upholster these six parlors?”

“These are the bones of four thousand.”

“It took a long time to get enough?”

“Many, many centuries.”

“Their different parts are well separated – skulls in one room, legs in another, ribs in another – there would be stirring times here for a while if the last trump should blow. Some of the brethren might get hold of the wrong leg, in the confusion, and the wrong skull, and find themselves limping, and looking through eyes that were wider apart or closer together than they were used to. You cannot tell any of these parties apart, I suppose?”

“Oh, yes, I know many of them.”

He put his finger on a skull. “This was Brother Anselmo – dead three hundred years – a good man.”

He touched another. “This was Brother Alexander – dead two hundred and eighty years. This was Brother Carlo – dead about as long.”

Then he took a skull and held it in his hand, and looked reflectively upon it.

“This,” he said, “was Brother Thomas.

This business-like way of illustrating a touching story of the heart by laying the several fragments of the lover before us and naming them, was as grotesque a performance, and as ghastly, as any I ever witnessed. I hardly knew whether to smile or shudder. . . .

I asked the monk if all the brethren up stairs expected to be put in this place when they died. He answered quietly:

“We must all lie here at last.” . . . I thought he even looked as if he were thinking, with complacent vanity, that his own skull would look well on top of the heap and his own ribs add a charm to the frescoes which possibly they lacked at present.

Here and there, in ornamental alcoves, stretched upon beds of bones, lay dead and dried-up monks, with lank frames dressed in the black robes one sees ordinarily upon priests. We examined one closely. The skinny hands were clasped upon the breast; two lusterless tufts of hair stuck to the skull; the skin was brown and sunken; it stretched tightly over the cheek bones and made them stand out sharply; the crisp dead eyes were deep in the sockets; the nostrils were painfully prominent, the end of the nose being gone; the lips had shriveled away from the yellow teeth: and brought down to us through the circling years, and petrified there, was a weird laugh a full century old!

Mark Twain, Innocents Abroad


Bond House 4rshort Italian video on San Bernardino alle Ossa provides a great introduction to the church.

Milan’s San Bernardino alle Ossa and Rome’s Capuchin Crypt make every short list of the world’s top bone chapels.

For sites dedicated to the world’s creepiest bone houses, click here and try here.

San Vitale: Born in Milan, Buried Alive in Ravenna


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Born alive in Milan. Buried alive in Ravenna.

That’s the short history of San Vitale (Saint Vitalis). A wealthy citizen and soldier of Milan. Married to Valeria, and the father of Milan’s patron saints, Gervasius and Protasius.

His longer history is not much longer, nor of much historical value. Like so many of our early Christian saints, we really don’t know who he was or what he did. Just that he died a martyr’s death, if he lived at all. San Vitale is in a short line of ‘domino saints’, one martyr falling after another.


According to legend, San Vitale witnessed the execution of Saint Ursicinus of Ravenna. San Vitale was on the sidelines, encouraging him to die like a good martyr. Once Ursicinus was dead, Vitale took his body away for burial. In doing so, he caught the attention of the persecuting judge, Paulinus, who consequently ordered Vitale to be tortured and then buried alive. Vitale was thrown into a deep pit and covered with stones.


It was now Valeria’s time to retrieve the dead body, but the Christians of Ravenna refused to give up the relics of their new martyred saint. So Valeria set off for home husband-less and empty-handed. On the way to Milan, she was accosted by a gang of evil villains who ordered her to sacrifice to Silvanus, the god of the forest. Valeria rebuked the idolaters, who swiftly struck her down. She was carried home to Milan, where she died three days later.

As for the twin sons, Gervasius and Protasius, the story goes that after the death of their parents, they gave their possessions to the poor and lived the religious life for ten years until they, too, were martyred. Saint Ambrose later dug them up, enshrined them into his new basilica and made them the patron saints of Milan.

The earliest surviving text recording the martyrdoms of San Vitale and his family is a letter dated to the late fourth or the early fifth century attributed to Saint Ambrose (Pseudo Ambrogio, Letter 2 on the Discovery of Gervasius and Protasius), in which is inserted a report by a certain Phillip, who was a purported witness to the martyrdom of the twin brothers.

It is not certain whether these events took place during the time of Nero (d. 68), during the reigns of Decius or Valerian in the third century, or during the Diocletian persecutions (303 – 305). Proper history only begins with Saint Ambrose’s letter to his sister, Marcella, in which he mentions in few details the discovery of relics which he determined were those of Gervasius and Protasius. Their parents were identified as Vitale and Valeria of Milan, whose feast day is celebrated on April 28.


From the obscurity of the martyrdom of San Vitale has risen one of the most famous churches in Western Christendom. On the tradition location where he was buried alive in Ravenna stands the octagonal-shaped Basilica of San Vitale, consecrated on May 17, 548 and most famous for containing the largest and best preserved Byzantine mosaics outside of Constantinople. All five characters mentioned in the story above — Ursicinus, Vitale, Valeria, Gervasius and Protasius — are commemorated in the church, whose mosaics most famously include an image of Emperor Justinian (d. 565). The same five saints are also depicted across town in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo (Ravenna).


San Vitale is also represented on the northern colonnade of St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. The statue, created by Lazzaro Morelli, is 3.1 meters tall and was created in 1665-67.

St Vitale-St Peters Square

Milanese commemoration of the Milanese couple pales with respect to Ravenna and Rome. While the twin sons, buried in the Basilica of San Ambrogio, remain, along with Saint Ambrose, the patron saints of the city, contemporary Milan has forgotten the blessed parents. The ancient church of San Valeria was destroyed in 1786, while the cult of Vitale, which rose in Ravenna, was never established in the city.

The Miracle of the Bleeding Child


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Milan’s Miracle of the Bleeding Child took place on March 25, 1242 at the Church of San Satiro.

Madonna col BambinoAccording to P. Morigi, Santuario di Milano, 1603 (paraphrase):

‘In 1242 on the day of the Annunciation of Our Lady, a man by the name of Massatio da Vigonzone, who had gambled away everything he owned except for the clothes he was wearing, went in desperation to the Church of San Satiro, and there he saw the fresco of the glorious Mother of God with the young child in her arms, which on the wall of the cemetery  near the door of the church. Full of diabolical rage and fury,  he stabbed the Christ Child, and then blood miraculously began to flow from the image of our Lord’.

The miracle-making icon became the object of devotion, turning San Satiro into a place of pilgrimage. The dagger is still preserved in the church to this day.

PugnaleMassatio immediately repented; Milan’s Madman became a Monk. Moreover, he ‘acquired the merit of being numbered among the blessed’.

The mid-13th century was high season for Milan’s ‘dagger saints’. Exactly a decade later, in 1252, Carino of Balsamo took his dagger to Saint Peter of Verona (Peter Martyr) along the Como highway. He, too, repented, eventually becoming Blessed Carino . The object of his wrath — the body of Peter Martyr, now in the Portinari Chapel — became an object of regional veneration, just as the 13th century fresco of Madonna and Child, now above the central altar at Santa Maria presso San Satiro, is among the holiest images of the city of Milan.

Ambrose: On the Death of Theodosius (25 February 395 CE)


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Theodosius I St Ambrose of Milan (c. 340 – 397) may have had a man crush on Theodosius I (347-395). If so, there are just two degrees of separation between me and the imperial throne. Theodosius I died in Milan on January 17, 395. Following the example of Jacob (Genesis 50:2-3), the emperor laid in state for forty days. On February 25, 395, the fortieth day of the Theodosius’ death, Ambrose delivered a funeral oration in honor of the Christian emperor (De Obitu Theodosii or On the Death of Theodosius).

For Ambrose, Theodosius’ virtue lay in his ability to pardon others:

‘If it is a great thing to find anyone who is merciful or faithful, how much more so an emperor whom power impels toward vengeance, but whom, nevertheless, compassion recalls from taking vengeance? What is more illustrious than the faith of an emperor whom power does not exalt, pride does not elevate, but piety bows down? . . . Therefore what a great thing it is to lay aside the terror of power and to prefer the sweetness of granting pardon’ (12).

Above all, Theodosius’ earthly witness was echoed in the scriptural phrase: ‘I have loved’ (cf. Psalm 116:1, Romans 13:10, Romans 8:38-39 and John 21:15-18).

Ambrose, who patterned his own life upon the same scriptural virtues, not to be outdone. Ambrose, likewise, has loved, and the object of his affections was the man in the box.

Ambrose boasts: ‘I have loved a merciful man, humble in power, endowed with a pure heart and a gentle disposition’ (33).

‘I have loved a man who esteemed those who reprove more than those who flatters. [Theodosius] threw on the ground all the royal attire that he was wearing. He wept publicly in church for his sin. . . He prayed for pardon with groans and with tears. What private citizens are ashamed to do, the emperor was not ashamed to do, namely, to perform penance publicly’ (34).

I have loved a man who in his dying hour kept asking for me with his last breath. I have loved a man who, when he was already being released from the body, was more concerned about the condition of the Church than about his own trials. I have loved him, therefore, I confess, and for that reason I have suffered my sorrow in the depths of my heart’ (35).

‘I have loved, and so I accompany him to the land of the living, and I will not abandon him until, by my tears and prayers, I shall lead the man whither his merits summon, unto the holy mountain of God, where there is eternal life, where there is no corruption, no sickness, no mourning, no sorrow, no companionship with the dead’ (37).

Theodosius I

At the end of his message, Ambrose addresses the long funeral procession that would now depart for Constantinople and, in particular, Theodosius’ young eight-year-old son, Honorius, who, as the heir to the Western half of the empire, had to remain in Milan.

‘Now let us come to the transportation of the illustrious body. You weep, Honorius, illustrious scion, and give testimony of your filial love by your tears. You are sending the body of your father on a long and distant journey, for it still lacks the honor of a tomb (54) . . . You weep, also, august Emperor, because you yourself will not escort the honored remains to Constantinople. We are both in the same situation. We all shall accompany them with due sorrow’ (55).

In many ways, Ambrose’s lament must have been for the city of Milan, which was now losing the holy presence of the saintly emperor to distant Constantinople. Ambrose had been creating Milan as a public Christian city by building churches and digging up old dead saints. Some physical relics of the deceased Christian warrior would have worked wonders in his urban design. Apparently, Ambrose resisted the temptation to pocket some sacred flesh, although he must have keep some possessions of his imperial parishioner.

In any case, he was admittedly wistful of Constantinople, which along with heavenly New Jerusalem, were the clear winners in the death of Theodosius:  

‘Blessed are thou, Constantinople, for thou art receiving a citizen of paradise, and thou wilt possess in the august hospice of his buried body a dweller of the celestial city’ (56).

Ambrose survived Theodosius by only two years, dying on April 4, 397. 


Nothing like a dead emperor to spice up Milan’s carnival season. In 395, Easter fell on March 25. Consequently, the forty days of Theodosius’ (January 17 – February 25) overlapped with the pre-Easter season of Lent.


I am writing this blog on Emperor Theodosius while watching the closing ceremony of the XXII Winter Olympics games in Sochi, Russia. Ironically, Theodosius appears to have been responsible for bringing the Ancient Olympic games to an end.

In 393, the last recorded year for the Olympic games, Theodosius issued a law prohibiting non-Christian public customs.


On February 27, 380, Theodosius issued the so-called Edict of Thessalonica, which made Nicene Christianity the one and only official religion of the Roman Empire. This document was in sharp contrast to the Edict of Milan (February 313), which granted religious freedom to all subjects. 

Alfa Milano: Fast Autos, Past Logos


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600px-Alfa_Romeo.svgImages of Milan adorn my house here in Jerusalem.

I am hoping one day they decorate my driveway as well.

I am thinking along the lines of a red cross and a green snake – nicely ornamenting the hood of a 2014 Alfa Romeo 4C Coupe.


Two principal insignia of medieval Milan are renown the world over. Thanks to Alfa Romeo.

City of MilanThe first symbol is the Ambrose Cross, a red cross on a white background, still used today as the city’s logo. The Ambrose Cross, alleged to have been the symbol of Milan’s fourth-century bishop, is identical to the St George’s Cross, used by city of Genoa and more recognizably as the flag of England. I like the story that the Ambrose Cross inspired the others, beginning with Genoa in the late eleventh century. Tradition then claims that Richard the Lionheart (1157-1199), the King of England, inspired by Genoa, adopted St George as his patron saint. Such legends – who inspired who – are particularly difficult to substantiate. In any case, by the end of the Crusader period, all three entities were waving a flag with a red cross on a white background.


Yet, the Ambrose Cross is thoroughly Milan. Along with the city’s coat of arms, it is featured in the logo of AC Milan, and even black-and-blue hometown rivals, Inter Milan, have worn the kit and colors of the city’s red and white cross (below right).

 AC MilanBarcelona v Inter Milan - Gamper Trophy

biscione_6The second symbol is the Biscione, or Vipera, a serpent in the act of consuming a human, usually in the form of a child and sometimes depicted as a Saracen. The symbol was adopted as the insignia of the Visconti family, which ruled Milan beginning in 1277. According to one legend, Ottone Visconti (1207 – 1295), who founded the House of Visconti, killed a Saracen during the First Crusade and adopted the warrior’s coat of arms, a snake eating a man, as his own. Another legend locates an enormous child-eating dragon in Lake Gerundo near Milan. Ottone slew the creature, inspiring the insignia. Yet another version links the image to Matteo Visconti, who became the count of Milan in 1295 and who may have designed the Biscione based upon legends of the Germanic tribes who invaded Lombardia in the eighth century.

Arms_of_the_House_of_SforzaWhen Filippo Maria Visconti died in 1447 without a male heir, Francesco I Sforza (1401 – 1466), who married Filippo’s illegitimate daughter, Bianca Maria Visconti (1425-1468), assumed control of Milan. The Sforza dynasty, which ruled Milan until 1535, incorporated the Biscione into their own coat of arms.

And not surprisingly, while the Ambrose Cross is the signature logo for AC Milan, Inter Milan, notwithstanding its own use of the city’s cross, has adopted the Biscione as its own mascot.

Inter Milan

For the past century, these two insignia of Milan  – the Ambrose Cross and the Biscione  –  have been twinned into a symbol all its own. Or, rather than of Alfa Romeo.

When Alfa (Anonima Lombarda Fabbricia Automobilia) was founded in 1910, the executives of the Milan-based company commissioned Romano Catteneo to design the company’s logo. To do so, he conjured up the city’s iconic past, creating a circular logo of two segments. On the left, he placed the Ambrose Cross; on the right, the Biscione.


The original emblem was used between 1910 and 1915.

The company was bought in 1918 by Nicola Romeo, and the logo was redesigned by Giuseppe Merosi. The wording, now white, was changed to ‘ALFA  – ROMEO’ with ‘MILANO’ added below. On the sides were two Savoy-dynasty knots in honor of the Kingdom of Italy.

After the Alfa Romeo P2 won the inaugural Automobile World Championship in 1925, a laurel wreath was added around the badge.

In 1946, after the abolition of the Italian monarchy, the Savoy knots were replaced with two wavy lines.

When Alfa Romeo opened its factory in Naples in the early 1970s, the name ‘MILANO’ was dropped from the logo; the overall design was modernized, and the cool green snake became even cooler.

Today, Alfa Romeo remains an recognized leader in high-performance sport cars, driven, as in the past, by the iconic images of medieval Milan.

Milan’s Big Yellow Taxi: The Ruins of San Giovanni in Conca


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I now live in Jerusalem. Here, in the Holy City, churches have been damaged, destroyed and demolished by invading marauders, distant caliphs and periodic earthquakes.

In Milan, the damage has been done by its own city council. At least for one former jewel of the city — San Giovanni in Conca. The church was originally built in the fifth or sixth century inside the city’s Roman walls in the middle of present-day Piazza Missori some four hundred meters south of the Duomo. Apparently, San Giovanni’s founders didn’t envision the traffic of late nineteenth-century Milan.


Maybe it’s not exactly ‘They paved paradise to put up a parking lot’ (Joni Mitchell, Big Yellow Taxi, 1970) — that would have us incredulously comparing Milan to Hawaii — but it’s Milan’s closest version of it. ‘They tore down the church to put in a traffic lane’. So goes the story of progress in urban Milan in the wake of nineteenth-century national unification and then again after the Second World War.

To be fair, the Germans, Austrians and French had their own role in the church’s demise, but Milan’s city council signed the final death notices.

Maybe there is no reason to think that beautiful ancient churches should have an inherent right to occupy Milan’s modern landscape. Maybe my imagination is overly captured by the reconstructed design of the original church by Francesco Corni. Then, again, I have a thing for medieval Milan.

San Giovanni in Conca

San Giovanni in Conca, dedicated to St John the Evangelist, measured 53 by 7 meters. It had a single nave with a single, semi-circular apse. For some reason, it was rebuilt in the eleventh centuries upon the same foundations.

Then entered one of Milan’s own invading marauders. Frederick Barbarossa (1122-1190) destroyed the church in 1162. Again, it was rebuilt, this time with a 24-meter bell tower, three aisles, a transept and a central dome topped by a cupola-like structure (architecturally called a lantern). High up on the façade, a central niche housed the bust of St John the Evangelist, represented in a cauldron of boiling oil. According to tradition, the Emperor Domitian immersed the saint in the oil; yet, St John emerged unscathed.

Perhaps, the most storied history of the church is from the late middle ages. In the fourteenth century, the Visconti ruling family of Milan liked the church so much that they enclosed it within their own estate, the so-called ‘Ca’ dii can’ (or ‘House of Dogs’).

220px-Bernabò_e_Beatrice_ViscontiThus, the Visconti family turned San Giovanni in Conca into their own private chapel and burial chambers.  Queen Beatrice della Scala was buried there in 1384, followed a year later by her husband, Bernabó Visconti, who was poisoned in Trezzo d’Adda by his nephew, Gian Galeazzo. Bernabò’s funeral monument and equestrian statue, now in the Castello Sforzesca (Sforza Castle Museum), are a separate blog post waiting to happen.

In 1531, Francesco II Sforza donated San Giovanni to the Order of the Carmelites, who constructed a monastery adjacent to the church. They raised the bell tower, and the interior of the church was transformed into a baroque building. A new baroque façade was placed on the building.

San-Giovanni-in-Conca in 1660s

Tragedy befell the church in the modern era. St John surviving the clutches of Emperor Domitian was a dawdle compared to San Giovanni’s plight against the forces of modernity. The cauldron of boiling oil remained frozen in stone as the saint looked on helplessly from his sacred perch.

San Giovanni in Conca

First, the church was deconsecrated by Emperor Franz Joseph of Austria in 1872, and then closed by the French and used as a warehouse. Milan’s city council stepped in following the Unification of Italy to further seal the fate of the church, deciding in 1877 to create via Carlo Alberto, today via Mazzini, through the area occupied by the church.

San Giovanni in concha 1877-1948But instead of flattening the church, the city choose merely to castrate it, leaving it exposed as an ecclesial eunuch in a city virile with churches.

Then enter a role played by a rather interesting protagonist. In 1879, the city council allowed the Waldensian Church — a pre-Reformation Protestant group long persecuted by the Catholic Church — to take over the space. With the help of architect Angelo Colla, the church, now gutted of its nave and aisles, was drastically shortened with a neo-Gothic façade now attached to the apse. The ‘new’ Waldensian church was dedicated on May 8, 1881.

The story begs creative interpretation. Did the Waldensian Church, which only gained legal freedom in Italy in 1848, finally ‘get a piece’ of the Catholic Church and with it yet more de facto recognition? Or, did the Waldensians once again get ‘short-shrifted’? Perhaps, neither. But for a tradition that has often recoiled at all things Catholic, what a beauty irony to worship within the truncated walls of one of Milan’s most hallowed catholic foundations.

Milan 1901

And the story only gets better.

After World War II, the inevitable creepage of modernity finally condemned the building to near oblivion. The Milan city council finally finished what Barbarossa had started in 1162. The church was demolished between 1948 and 1952 in order to fully develop via Albricci and Piazza Missori. Even so, the underground crypt and sections of the apse were retained. It is not so clear, however, whether the self-inflicted ruins stand as a memorial to the ancient church or as a tribute to the follies of modernity. In the meantime, the Waldensians, once again, had to flee for cover. This time to nearby to via Francesco Sforza — taking per forza their now-cherished façade with them! The new building, fitted with its old face, was dedicated in 1949.


The Touring Club Italiano now manage the ruins of San Giovanni in Conca. Barring traffic (!), the crypt is open Monday – Saturday, 9:30 – 17:30, which ironically are better hours than most of Milan’s free-standing churches.


A, E, I, O and U: Bonvesin de la Riva and the Marvels of Milan


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bonvesin_big‘The Praises of Jerusalem’, which first appeared in the eleventh century, is a literary genre celebrating the sanctity of the Holy City. Milan has its own tradition —  or, more accurately, a single manuscript of a medieval text that gushes over the city’s virtues, comparing Milan with other places as an eagle among birds.

The text, De magnalibus urbis Mediolani (‘On the Marvels of Milan’), which was written in 1288, is by Bonvesin de la Riva (c. 1240 – c. 1313), a Milan native regarded as the city’s best thirteenth-century writer.

According to Bonvesin, Milan excels in size and location — he counted 120 bell towers and 12,500 front doors (‘portoni‘). It exceeds other places in its professions: 120 lawyers, 28 physicians, 150 surgeons, 440 butchers and 6 communal trumpeters. Bonvesin describes the two hundred thousand inhabitants of Milan as noble, elegant and especially honest.

The city is no less blessed by its natural resources and physical topography; it is so fertile that fish spontaneously appear in puddles after a rain.

But for Bonvesin, Milan’s name itself (Mediolanum) was the most convincing testimony to the incomparable virtues of the city:

‘From the interpretation of the name itself you can learn about our city. In fact, Mediolanum begins with an ‘M’ and ends with the same letter. In the middle, there are two letters, that is, the ‘O’ and the ‘L’. The first and last letter, an ‘M’, being more extensive than all others letters, indicates the breadth and glory of Milan, which is known all over the world. With an ‘M ‘placed at the beginning and the end the word, it also means the number, one thousand, and so it expresses a perfect number in its uniqueness, meaning that from the beginning to the end of the world, Milan was and will be counted in the list of perfect cities. The ‘O’, one of the letters in the middle of the word, has a round and perfect form, more dignified and more beautiful that all other letters, and which expresses the roundness, beauty, dignity and perfection of Milan. Our city is in fact round in the literal sense, beautiful and more perfect than all other cities. The ‘L’, on the other hand, means the length and heights of its nobility and glory, which thanks to the prayers and merits of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Blessed Ambrose and other saints, whose bodies lie buried here, its high nobility and glory will remain, by the grace of God, until the end of the world. Furthermore, it should also be emphasized that in this word, there are all five vowels, each with its own syllable. Just like the name of our city which does not lack any vowels, so our city does not lack any benefits that can be enjoyed by the five human senses.  As the names of all other cities lack at least one of the five vowels, these cities when compared with Milan also lack some of these same benefits.  Therefore, the greatness of Milan is evident, and it seems to me that it necessarily follows that citizens of Milan should greatly boast of their homeland’.

De magnalibus urbis Mediolani (‘On the Marvels of Milan’) remained lost for centuries until a manuscript was found in 1898 at the Biblioteca Nacional in Madrid, Spain.


bonve4A poet, writer and teacher of Latin grammar, Bonvesin da la Riva was also a lay member of the Ordine degli Umiliati (‘The Order of the Humiliated’), a order which collected taxes and controlled the city’s purse strings.

So Bonvesin was well-positioned to boast of the city’s fortunes. Bonvesin knew the Milanese, who they were, where they lived and what they ate. His text on Milan includes a long list of the fruits and vegetables being consumed in Milan and even a recipe for chestnuts.

In De quinquaginta curialitatibus ad mensam (‘Fifty courtesies at Table’) Bonvesin provides a detailed overview of thirteenth-century table manners. His other works include Libro de le tre scritture (in Milanese dialect), Disputatio musce cum formica, Disputatio rosae cum viola, De vulgare de elymosinis and Laudes de Virgine Maria. 


An Irishman in Milan


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???????????????????????????????Fourteen hundred years ago, Old Man Columbanus (d. 615), the pilgrim monk of Ireland, was hanging out in Milan. The outspoken abbot had worn out his welcome in Gaul and Germany, and so Columbanus turned south of the Alps to the Lombards, where in 612/613 CE, he was ‘received with honor’ by King Agilulf (reigned 590-616 CE) and Queen Theodelinda (570-628). Columbanus stayed in Milan until setting off in 614 to form his last monastery at Bobbio in the Trebbia Valley, one hundred kilometers south of Milan, on land offered to him by the Lombard king.

True to form, Columbanus’ sojourn in Milan was steeped in doctrinal intrigue. Arianism and the schism of the Three Chapters were top of his agenda.

According to Columbanus’ biographer, Jonas of Bobbio (fl. 650), ‘during his stay in Milan, Columbanus resolved to attack the errors of the heretics, that is, the Arian perfidy, which he wanted to cut out and exterminate with the cauterizing knife of the Scriptures. And he composed an excellent and learned work against them’. Although Columbanus’ treatise has not survived, Jonas gives an indication, however exaggerated, of Arianism’s persistent presence two centuries after the death of St Ambrose (d. 392), whose iconography includes a whip in hand invoking the image of a reincarnate Christ driving out the Arian money changers (cf. John 2:13-16).  Over a century after Ambrose, Arians were still trolling the city.   

Arianism was a royal prerogative in Milan. Ambrose’s chief nemesis had been Justina (d. ca. 391), wife and mother of Roman emperors, Valentinian I (reigned 364-375) and Valentinian II (reigned 375-392). Columbanus’ patron, Agilulf, was Arian, as were most of the Lombards, until he abandoned the doctrine in 603 upon the insistence of Theodelinda. 

Agilulf’s about-face was not lost on Columbanus:

‘What I observe cannot be devoid of the miraculous. For the rulers in this province have long trampled on the Catholic faith and consolidated this lapse into Arianism; now they ask that our faith should be confirmed. Perhaps Christ now looks on us with favor. . . . Let the king follow the King. . . . What more pleasant than the concord of brothers long divided?’ (Letter 5.16).

One of Columbanus’ writings penned in Milan has survived, and ex-Arian Agilulf was the instigator. At the request of the king, Columbanus wrote a letter to Pope Boniface IV (papacy 608-615) regarding the Three Chapters. As controversies go, it is a real dozer, but as one episode in the larger saga of the Chalcedonian Confession, it was the talk of the day in the ecclesiastical world. The controversy affected the universal Church, while its effects were particularly localized. For nearly three decades (553-581), Milan broke off its communion with Rome, convinced that the Papacy had wussed out in its support of Chalcedon.

So what as all the fuss? In 451, the Council of Chalcedon declared: ‘We teach . . . one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, known in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation’. The Chalcedon definition immediately became the official Christology of the imperial Church – both Greek and Roman – but it did not cut the mustard with a few significant stakeholders, namely Antioch and Alexandria.

For nearly a century, a whole bunch of stuff happened. Failed attempts at reconciliation, such as the Henotikon of Emperor Zeno (482), only spawned more division and controversy. Then in 543/544, Emperor Justinian I (reigned 527-565), ever seeking the consolidation of his empire and attempting to win over the Non-Chalcedonians, issued an edict in which he anathematized the person and writings of Theodore of Mopsuestia (d. 428), certain writings of Theodoret of Cyrus (d. 457), and a letter of Ibas of Edessa (d. 557).

These texts, the so-called Three Chapters, were considered tainted with Nestorianism (see below).

Justinian’s edict condemning the Three Chapters was confirmed at the Second Council of Constantinople in 553. This decision was, in turn, acknowledged by the beleaguered Pope Vigilius (papacy 537-555), whom Justinian had forcibly summoned to Constantinople.

Enter the Schism of the Three Chapters.

The Schism of the Three Chapters greatly afflicted northern Italy between 553 and 698. While some Chalcedonians were content condemning the Three Chapters, others refused, arguing that to do so was a betrayal of Chalcedon. The opposition – led by Aquileia, which used the occasion to become a patriarchate – expressed its voice at the Council of Aquileia in 553. Aquileia, Milan and much of northern Italy broke off relations with Rome during the sixth century. While Milan’s recalcitrance lasted until 581, Aquileia held out until 698.

By the time Columbanus set foot in the city, Milan had been reconciled with Rome. Aquileia remained aloof, though, and the controversy of the Three Chapters was still reverberating through Christendom. As for Rome, Vigilius was long dead. Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604) had pursued a policy of tolerance for defenders of the Three Chapters, and now Pope Boniface IV had assumed the papacy. At King Agilulf’s beckoning, Columbanus wrote the holy pontiff calling on Boniface IV to take action to heal the divisions in the Western church caused by the Three Chapters schism, which had troubled western Christendom since the papacy of Vigilius in the mid-sixth century.

Columbanus_Bobbio AbbeyColumbanus’ letter to Pope Boniface IV (Letter 5, written in Milan in 613) is best known for his self-descriptions as a ‘bumptious babbler’ and a ‘dull Scots pilgrim’, his defense of Irish Christianity (‘We Irish, though dwelling at the far ends of the earth, are all disciples of St. Peter and St. Paul’) and the rather imprudent tone which he assumes towards the pope: ‘You must pardon me as I handle such rough passages, if any of my words have caused outward offence to godly ears . . . the freedom of my country’s customs, to put it so, has been part-cause of my audacity. For among us, it is not a man’s station but his principles that matter’.

There is no record of the Pope’s response.

Columbanus’ Milanese adventures came to an end in 614, when the old Irish pilgrim, a year before his death, set off to Bobbio to the place of his final resurrection in the Trebbia Valley. He died on 23 November 615.  



Columbanus is remembered as a peregrinus, monastic founder and missionary. His greatest contribution was his introduction of the Irish practice of penance to continental Europe.

The Irish understanding of the pilgrimage life find expression in Jonas’ Life of Columbanus, in which Columbanus’ encounter with a devout woman in Ireland explicitly articulates the two degrees of peregrination – the lesser pilgrimage within one’s homeland and the greater, or ex patria, journey across the sea:

‘Twelve years have passed by, since I have been far from my home and have sought out this place of pilgrimage. With the aid of Christ, never since then have I engaged in secular matters; after putting my hand to the plough, I have not turned backward. And if the weakness of my sex had not prevented me, I would have crossed the sea and chosen a better place among strangers as my home’ (Vita Columbani 8, trans. Munro).


Whereas the Chalcedonian Confession defined Christ as having two natures without confusion or division, Nestorius, Patriarch of Constantinople (428 – 431) emphasized the disunion between the human and divine natures of Jesus. Consequently, Nestorianism rejected the title, Theotokos, ‘bearer of God’ or ‘mother of God’, for the Virgin Mary. Nestorius and his teachings were condemned at the First Council of Ephesus in 431 and the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This led to the Nestorian Schism in which churches supporting the doctrines of Nestorius permanently split from the Chalcedonian churches. Historically, they have been known as the Church of the East, or simply as the Nestorian Church.

Nestorianism and the larger Christological debate inspired another doctrine, which was also deemed heretical by the victorious Chalcedonian position of the Roman Church. Monophysitism, the doctrine of one nature, believed that Christ had but a single nature; his human nature had been absorbed into his divinity. Monophysitism survives today in the six churches belonging to the so-called Oriental Orthodoxy: the Coptic Orthodox, the Ethiopian Orthodox, the Eritrean Orthodox, the Syrian Orthodox, the Indian Orthodox and the Armenian Apostolic. 

Milan’s San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore


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A mass martyrdom of six-thousand Christian soldiers renders a rather nice harvest of holy relics.

SanMaurizio01So goes the legend of the famed Theban Legion, who was called up from Egypt by Maximian to assist against the Baguadae in the late third century. The Romans considered the transalpine baddies to be brigands and marauding rogues. The Theban Legion, who had converted en masse to Christianity, considered themselves to be followers of Christ. It would not be a successful campaign. The onward Christian soldiers refused to obey the Emperor, and they paid for it to the last man. Either the Theban Legion recognized the barbarians as fellow Christians and refused to slaughter them, or they refused to worship the cult of the emperor and were exposed as Christians. In any case, Maximian was vexed, and in the Swiss town of Agaunum, now called Saint Maurice-en-Valais, he killed his own soldiers. He began by killing ten percent of the legion, which legend numbers as 6,666 men. The bloodshed continued with repeated decimations until the soldiers were history, and the Martyrs of Agaunum had risen to life. The abundance of the anonymous dead meant that Christian communities could name-their-own-saint, but the cult of Maurice (Morris, Moritz, Maurizio), identified as the legion’s commander, soon emerged as the flag bearer of Christian commemoration regarding the martyrdom of the Theban Legion.

Image above: The martyrdom of St Maurice (Bernardino Luini).

Saint Maurice and the Theban Legion have had a fundamental impact upon the topography of Europe. Over 650 religious foundations in Europe are dedicated to the saint, and fifty-two towns and villages in France alone carry his name. San Maurizio is a patron saint of the Piedmont region of Italy, while in Lombardia, San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore is Milan’s contribution to the cause.   


San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore is one of the most beautiful churches in Milan. Staffed by volunteers of the Touring Club of Milan, the monastery, now housing the city’s archaeological museum, is free, open all day long and conveniently located between the Duomo and the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio.

The ecclesial setting dates back to at least the Lombard period when it was the seat of the most important Benedictine convent in the city. The Monastero Maggiore itself was built in the sixteenth century. While the Roman ruins of Milan are rather skint, the ecclesiastical complex incidentally conserved the best remaining portion of the city’s imperial walls. The monastic site, snugly located between the ancient Maximillian walls and the city’s Roman-era Hippodrome, incorporated a polygonal tower from the former, and a square tower, used as the church’s bell tower, from the later.

The simple façade of the sixteenth-century monastic church betrays its remarkable interior. The frescoed walls of Monastero Maggiore are Milan’s Renaissance treasure.


Construction of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore began in 1503 under the design of Gian Giacomo Dolcebuono together with Giovanni Antonio Amadeo. The project was finished fifteen years later by Cristoforo Solari. The building is a monumental hall divided in two parts by a large wall. The smaller of the two areas, which one enters from the front entrance, contains the altar and was open to the worshiping public, while the larger hall served as the choir for a strictly cloistered order of nuns who followed mass by means of screened grate in the dividing wall. The monastery was dissolved by Napoleon in 1794.


The extraordinary fresco decorations, painted from the 1510s, transform the sober building into a splendid sanctuary. The most important painter involved was Bernardino Luini, the Lombard Renaissance master influenced by Leonardo da Vinci and Raphael. Luini’s work was continued by his two sons, Aurelio and Giovan Piero Luini, and other artists including Antonio Campi, Callisto Piazza, Ottavio Semino and Simone Peterzano, the mentor of Caravaggio.

See Maria Teresa Fiorio and Sandrina Bandera, Bernardino Luini and Renaissance Painting in Milan: The Frescoes of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore (2000).

Ranked #1 of Milan’s 318 attractions by Tripadvisor, see reviews and photos of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore.


The earliest surviving document regarding the Theban Legion comes from Eucherius, Bishop of Lyon (d. 450).  According to Eucherius, the relics of the Martyrs of Agaunum were discovered and identified by Theodore, or Theodulus, (d. 391) the first historically-identified Bishop of Octudurum (now Martigny), who attended the Council of Aquileia in 381. He built a basilica in their honor, which became the early center of the cult of Maurice. In 515, the basilica became a part of an abbey under the patronage of King Sigismund of Burgundy (d. 524). Today, the monastery, St. Maurice’s Abbey (Abbaye de Saint-Maurice d’Agaune or Saint-Maurice-en-Valais), is a national heritage site of Switzerland.

Given the number of martyrs, Eucherius considered Aguanum to be the sacred site par excellence. In 450 CE, he wrote: ‘We often hear, do we not, a particular locality or city is held in high honour because of one single martyr who died there, and quite rightly, because in each case the saint gave his precious soul to the most high God. How much more should this sacred place, Aguanum, be reverenced, where so many thousands of martyrs have been slain, with the sword, for the sake of Christ!’ (Eucherius, Letter to Bishop Salvius).

Gregory of Tours weighed in later in the sixth century, but he locates the cult in Cologne: ‘At Cologne there is a church in which the fifty men from the holy Theban Legion are said to have consummated their martyrdom for the name of Christ. And because the church, with its wonderful construction and mosaics, shines as if somehow gilded, the inhabitants prefer to call it the Church of the Golden Saints’ (Glory of the Martyrs, 85).

The tale of the Theban Legion is included in Jacobus da Voragine’s thirteenth century, Golden Legend (Legenda aurea or Legenda sanctorum) and is detailed in the early Protestant, Book of Martyrs, by John Foxe.


Scholars differ on the historicity of the account, but the cult of St Maurice and its impact upon the religious imagination of Europe is a given fact. Maurice is traditionally depicted in full armor and emblazoned with a red cross.

As the patron saint of soldiers, Maurice was the patron saint of the Holy Roman Empire, whose emperors were anointed before the Altar of Saint Maurice in Rome’s St Peter’s Basilica.  More recently, on July 19, 1941, Pope Pius XII declared Saint Maurice to be patron saint of Italy’s Alpini Mountain Infantry Corps.

Saint Maurice is connected with the Spear of Destiny, or the Holy Lance of Vienna, one of several relics claiming to be the spear that Longinus used to pierce the side of Jesus. The lance, which Maurice supposedly carried into battle, bears an engraving of his name and is currently housed in the Schatzkammer, or Imperial Treasury, of the Hofburg Palace in Vienna. According to tradition, the relic along with Maurice’s spurs came into the possession of the Holy Roman Emperors in the tenth century.  These relics were used in the coronations of Austro-Hungarian Emperors until 1916.



St Maurice was also the patron saint of the Brotherhood of the Blackheads, a medieval military order of unmarried merchants based in present-day Estonia and Latvia. Depicted as a black Moor, the head of Maurice appears on the Brotherhood’s coat of arms.

saint-maurice magdeburgA statue of a black Maurice is in the cathedral of Magdeburg, Germany, where his relics have been venerated since the tenth century.

The Magdeburg Cathedral and the Abbey of St Maurice (Abbaye de Saint-Maurice d’Agaune or Saint-Maurice-en-Valais) in Switzerland are the saints’ two major shrines.

The feast day of St Maurice and the Theban Legion is September 22.

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Ambrose Asleep and the Allied Bombing of 1943


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Santa Maria delle grazieSeventy years ago this month, on 15 August, 1943, Allied bombs ripped through the city of Milan. The church of Santa Maria delle Grazie (above) – a former Dominican monastery – was heavily damaged, including much of the refectory. Fortunately, one wall survived – the one containing Leonardo da Vinci’s Cenacolo, or The Last Supper, which had been sandbagged to save it.  

Last Supper

Sadly, the whole city could not be sandbagged.


Among the city’s other ecclesiastical causalities was the apse mosaic of the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, generally regarded as one of the best examples of Lombard mosaic art. The mosaic was restored under the direction of Ferdinando Reggiori and now contains a line of red tessarae which demarcates the restored sections of the work (see images of Protasius and Gervasius below).

altarThe current apse belongs to the basilica’s ninth century reorganization, which took place between the archbishoprics of Angilbert II (824-859) and Anspert (868-881). Angilbert exhumed and re-entombed the bodies of the city’s patron saints – Ambrose, Gervasius and Protasius – and in doing so commissioned the famous golden altar by Volvinio (c. 840), which remains the jeweled masterpiece of the church. Anspert is linked with the atrium, which was further expanded in the twelfth century. The original date of the mosaic is unknown, but despite various interventions and restorations, the piece still retains its original ninth-century design.   

Left apseCenter ApseRight Apse

The mosaic depicts a vision of the heavenly kingdom in the guise of the imperialist court. An enthroned image of Christ Pantocreator, described as the ‘King of Glory’, adorns the center. In his hands is the Book of Life proclaiming his identity as the Savior of the World. Christ is flanked by the two martyr saints of Milan, Protasius and Gervasius (see below), whose actual relics flank those of Ambrose below in the basilica’s crypt. The two archangels, Michael and Gabriel, float above the heads of the saints with crowns in hand ready to invest the two martyrs. Below the feet of Christ are the medallions of three saints – Ambrose’s sister, Marcellina, is on the left, his brother Satryus is in the middle, and the little known saint, Saint Candida of Carthage, is on the right.

Ambrose Asleep detailThe presence of Ambrose is reserved for the two lateral scenes, framed in palm trees, which depict the so-called bi-location miracle. Only Ambrose could be memorialized for falling asleep while presiding over mass. According to tradition, he dozed while blessing the Host in Milan (right), and then simultaneously appeared at the funeral of St Martin in Tours (below). In fact, they both died in 397 CE, with Ambrose (d. April 4) giving up the ghost some seven months before Martin (d. November 8). The story reflects a religious imagination seeking to link the two fourth-century flag-bearers of Roman orthodoxy.

While Ambrose confronted Arians south of the Alps, Martin chased them away to the north.

Ambrose at Martin's Funeral


Given that the scene is set seven months after the death of the 87-year-old archbishop, it is not surprising that Ambrose is depicted as an old man with a short white beard – in contrast to images of the archbishop as a clean-shaven and youthful man which appear in the basilica’s Chapel of San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro (left) and on Volvinio’s golden altar. More surprisingly is the fact that Ambrose appears with the tonsure of St Peter. Ambrose’s likeness to St Peter expresses Milan’s claim as a Second Rome.   

The mosaic underwent a radical invention in the late twelfth century, perhaps as a result of damage suffered in the partial collapse of the basilica. In the mid-eighteen hundreds, it was thoroughly restored by the Venetian mosaic expert, Giovanni Moro. Today, the mosaic remains one of the finest pieces of mosaic art in Northern Italy.