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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.