Milan’s best preserved early Christian monument is the Basilica di San Simpliciano, originally the Basilica Virginum. With its original walls still stretching over 19 meters high, some claim that San Simpliciano is the best preserved early Christian structure in the entire Mediterranean basin.
Built in the shape of a Latin cross over 56 meters long, 21 meters wide and 22 meters tall, San Simpliciano was possibly modeled upon the Basilica of Constantine in Trier, Germany (below).
Indeed, the cities of Trier and Milan, both Roman capitals, were well-connected. St Ambrose (d. 397), whom according to tradition founded the Basilica Virginum, was born and raised in Trier, and later visited the city on official business as the bishop of Milan. He was very well acquainted with the Basilica of Constantine, and it may well have served as the inspiration for Ambrose’s church. While the church was originally dedicated to the virgins of Christian faith, it was later rededicated to San Simpliciano (d. 401), Ambrose’s successor as the bishop of Milan. The relics of San Simpliciano can still be seen behind the main altar.
Ambrose’s christianization of the city of Milan included the creation of extramural church complexes on the major roads leading outside the city. The Basilica Apostolorum (now San Nazaro) was on the road to Rome; the Basilica Martyrum (now Sant’Ambrogio) was on the road leading towards Gaul, and San Simpliciano, formerly the Basilica Virginum, was built just outside the city walls on the road leading to Trier by way of Como and the Splügen Pass. Although Ambrose does not mention that he was responsible for the Basilica Virginum, its Ambrosian origins are confirmed in the thirteenth century by Benzone of Alessandria who states that: ‘the basilica now called San Simpliciano was founded by Blessed Ambrose in honor of Blessed Mary’. Moreover, it has been speculated that the commissioning of the basilica may have coincided with a council convened by Ambrose in Milan in 393 to condemn the Jovinian heresy, which denied the virgin birth.
The original basilica consisted of a long single nave and had large, tall windows that illuminated the church’s interior. It also had a portico on three sides of its exterior. The first modifications to the structure probably took place during the Langobard period in the seventh century when the single nave was divided into three. More substanial changes took place during the twelfth and thirteenth centuries when the church assumed its Romanesque character.
When the Benedictines of Monte Cassino took possession of the church from the Cluniac monks in the sixteenth century, they found that the church, described as ‘being of high, majestic architecture with three cross-shaped naves, had become so indecent that it looked like a barn or a hut. . . . The windows were small, and everything was smoky and black’ (P. Puccinelli, Zodiaco della Chiesa Milanese, Milano 1650).
In the nineteenth century, the walls and pillars were completely covered by mortar and painted with blue and white stripes in an effort to imitate the marble work of Tuscan churches. Restoration efforts after WWII removed the plaster and recovered much of the basilica’s early Christian character.
The Basilica di San Simpliciano has also been linked with the martyr saints of Sisinio, Martirio and Alessandro (May 29) originally of Capadoccia. According to legend, the saints arrived in Milan, from where they were sent by Ambrose to help with the missionary efforts of Bishop Vigili of Trent. They were martyred in 397 in Anaunia (now the Val di Non), and their bodies were sent back to Milan, where Simpliciano was now the bishop of Milan. The saints were interred into the basilica, and their relics now lie underneath those of San Simpliciano. A small chapel to the left of the apse is also dedicated to the saints.
In May 1176, a carroccio, or sacred war wagon drawn by oxen, set forth from the church towards the Battle of Legnano, where the purported intercession of Sisinio, Martirio and Alessandro gave victory to the Lombard League over Frederick Barbarossa on May 29, 1176.
The body of Peter of Verona, also known at St Peter Martyr, lay in state in the basilica on the night of his murder, April 6, 1252.
The most striking artwork in the church is the ‘Crowning of the Virgin’ (early sixteenth century) by Ambrose of Fossano, also known as Bergognone, which is located in the vault of the apse. The work depicts the moment when the Virgin Mary was crowned by Christ in the presence of God and the heavenly chorus.