San Cristoforo sul Naviglio


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cristoforo_boutsSt Christopher (San Cristoforo), ‘the one who carries Christ’, is the giant with his feet in the water and a small child on his shoulders. He was one of the most venerated saints of the Middle Ages, and today his image is found in churches throughout Italy, and in taxi cabs around the world. He is the saint of travelers and pilgrims, and suspiciously shares his feast day, July 25, with St James, the pilgrim saint of Compostela, Spain.

Churches around the world are dedicated to St Christopher, including Milan’s Chiesa di San Cristoforo sul Naviglio. Milan has scarcely little open water, but the famed Naviglio Grande passes within meters of the church’s portals. The location is particularly apropos for the Milanese expression of the legendary cult.


A long time ago, a very tall and strong ferryman lived on the banks of a river. His job was to help people cross the river day and night and in all kinds of weather. One night, as a terrible storm raged, a little boy came to him and asked to be carried across the river. Although the winds and waves were very strong, the man could not refuse the little boy and placed him on his shoulders and began walking across the river. The more he walked, the heavier the little boy became – in fact, the little boy was the heaviest cargo he had ever carried – and the tall, strong man could only continue with great effort and perseverance. Finally, with the last of his strength, they arrived safely on the other side of the river. When the giant man asked the little boy why he was so heavy, it was revealed to him that the little boy was, in fact, the Christ-child and he was so heavy because the Christ-child was also carrying the full weight of the world in the form of a small ball.


Some see Greek (Hercules) and Egyptian (Anubis) influences in the development of the legend. The saint is called Cynocephalus in Greek, which means ‘dog head’, and is sometimes depicted in the East with the head of a dog.

Historical evidence for the saint is rather slight. According to the Martyrologium Hieronymianum (the Martyrology of Jerome), St Christopher was martyred in Lycia on July 25, 250 CE during the persecution of Emperor Decius, and by the fifth century, references appear to churches and monasteries dedicated to the saint. The western legend of Saint Christopher appears in its definitive form in Jacobus da Voragine’s thirteenth century, Golden Legends (Legenda aurea or Legenda sanctorum), in which the saint is identified as one of the fourteen Holy Helpers who offer protection against the plague. According to da Voragine, the martyrdom of Christopher, who is identified as a giant Canaanite, included being beaten with rods, hit with arrows, thrown into a fire, and finally beheaded. He is remembered, however, as the one who carried Christ.  



The Chiesa di San Cristoforo sul Naviglo is a charming complex consisting of two contiguous churches located at an obligatory crossing point in the canal system of greater Milan.  

The older church, the one farther away from the water, was built around 1364 upon an existing twelfth-century foundation as a single-roomed Romanesque church with a semicircular apse by a certain Friar Pietro Franzoni of Tavernasco, who also built an adjacent lazaretto, or hospital, in conjunction with the expansion of the Naviglio Grande. The apse contains frescoes by the Luini school, which depict the Eternal Father and the symbols of the four Evangelists. The lower register of the apse depicts the life-sized figures of St James and St John the Baptist in the center, and St Catherine of Siena and Blessed Christina Visconti on the two sides. Of the remaining frescos on the northern wall, the most noteworthy is a fifteenth-century image by the Bergognone school, if not by Bergognone (d. 1523/4) himself, of the enthroned Madonna surrounded by saints Rocco, Antonio, Augustine and Sebastian. 

GianGaleazzoViscontiIn the fifteenth century, a second church, commonly known as the Ducal Chapel, was built on the southern side of the existing church by Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1351-1402), fulfilling his vow regarding the cessation of the plague of 1399 which had claimed 20,000 victims. The Ducal Chapel was likewise dedicated to St. Christopher, patron saint against the plague, as well as to John the Baptist, St James and Blessed Cristina, protectors of the Visconti family, in commemoration of their victory over John III of Armagnac at the Battle of Alessandria on July 25, 1391. The two-bay apse-less church has a cross-vaulted ceiling. The remaining frescoes give an idea of ​​the vivid colors and dynamic images that greeted faithful pilgrims and travelers as they entered the church. Frescoes, which are still visible, include the Adoration of the Magi and the Seven Sleepers of Ephesus. In 1625, the wall separating the two churches was demolished, transforming the two churches into a single two-aisled interior space. 


The church has two valuable wooden statues of St. Christopher. One from the fourteenth century is in the original church (left), and a second statue from the sixteenth century is located in the Ducal Chapel.

Traces of two frescos of Saint Christopher can still be discerned on the façade of the original church, which is adorned with a terracotta portal and rose window. Above it, in small white marble tiles are three coats of arms: the serpentine image of the Visconti family, the cross of the city of Milan and the radiant sun among stars of Cardinal Pietro Filargo (1339-1410), archbishop of Milan (1402-1409), later elected Anti-pope Alexander V (1409-1410). The facade of the Ducal Chapel consists of a simple portal flanked by two tall lancet windows. Above the portal are the coats of arms of the Visconti family and the city of Milan. A fifteenth century Romanesque bell tower, unique among churches in Milan, rises over the two churches.


What led Christopher to become a ferryman in the first place?

According to legend, Christopher was a giant with great physical strength, who went in search of a single goal: to serve the most powerful person in the world. At first, he served a mighty king. One day, when a juggler was singing a song in which the devil was mentioned, Christopher saw the king make a sign of the cross. Seeing that the king was afraid of the devil, Christopher concluded that the devil was stronger than the king, and Christopher left the king in order to serve the devil.

One day while Christopher was serving the devil, they passed a cross along the side of the road. Christopher could see that the devil was visibly afraid of the cross, since it was the sign of Jesus Christ, and Christopher concluded that the cross was stronger than the devil. So, Christopher left the devil in order to serve Jesus Christ.

Christopher was led to a poor Christian hermit. When Christopher asked how he could serve Jesus Christ, the hermit told Christopher to pray and fast. Christopher knew nothing about prayer and fasting, and so he refused and asked the hermit for another way to serve Jesus Christ. The hermit then pointed to a nearby river and said, ‘No one can cross the river without risking his or her life. With your strength and enormous size, you can carry travelers and pilgrims from one bank to the other. This would be the best way for you to serve Christ. And so day and night, without refusal or rejection, Christopher carried people back and forth across the river until one dark and stormy night a little child appeared and asked to be carried across the river. . .   

In case Christopher was not convinced that the little boy was the Christ Child, he was told to plant his pole in front of his house. In the morning, when Christopher awoke, the pole had turned into a palm tree with leaves and dates, which is often depicted in images of the holy saint.

The cult of St. Christopher developed along land and water routes frequented by pilgrims and travelers. St Christopher was thought to gave strength and protection to pilgrims as they crossed the Alps, and as far north as the Baltics, St Christopher became the patron saint of the cities of Riga and Vilnius. In Milan, its legacy includes a church located along the banks of the Naviglio Grande, where with a wee bit of imagination the story of the giant ferryman and the Christ child can still be evoked, despite the picturesque pedestrian bridge now giving easy access to both sides of the canal.

Riga, Latvia

Riga, Latvia

Jerpoint Abbey, Ireland

Unfortunate Nabor: Saint Ambrose and The Desventuradas Islands


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The legacy of the Milanese saints stretch half-way around the world, but not surprisingly St Ambrose once again has the last word. On July 12, 1574, Spanish explorer Juan Fernández discovered a small group of islands in the Pacific Ocean some 850 kms (530 miles) off the coast of Chile. Known as the Desventuradas (or Unfortunate) Islands, Fernández named the two principle islands after the Milanese saints, Felix and Nabor (July 12th), in accordance with the custom among Spanish explorers to name geographical features after the saint or saints whose feast fell on the day of discovery.

Four years later in 1579, another Spanish explorer, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (d. 1592), described the islands as ‘small, uninhabited, waterless. They give shelter to many sea birds and seals, and to large quantities of fish’. The islands, which together are less than four square kilometers, are treeless rock formations lying 16 kilometers (10 miles) from one another.  According to Sarmiento de Gamboa, the rocky outcrops were called after the saints Felix and ‘Ambor’. Already, Nabor was starting to lose his grip on his island namesake. 

European maps of America published in 1584, 1587, 1608 and 1640 each refer to the islands as Felix and Nabor. However, a Jesuit priest, Fr Diego de Rosales, observed in a manuscript written sometime between 1660 – 1670 that ‘on the navigation charts drawn in Perú these islands are called the isles of S. Féliz and Ambrosio’, although they are ‘more properly the “isles of S. Féliz and S. Nabor” . . . The error in Ambor and Ambrosio, for S. Nabor, is thus manifest’.

The original error in changing Nabor’s name to Ambor does not appear to be an archaic or abbreviated form of Ambrose. However, once the name had been transformed into Ambor, its conversion to Ambrosio was perhaps inevitable. In any case, the original name of the island, St Nabor, which acknowledges its discovery on July 12th, was eclipsed by the end of the seventeenth century in favor of Milan’s most famous saint, Ambrose. The uninhabited Desventuradas Islands still retain the names Féliz and Ambrosio. Two additional small outcrops are respectively named Isolate González (.25 km²) and Roca Catedral (.01 km²).


So, halfway around the seventeenth-century world, some 1300 years after their respective deaths, St Nabor was unable to escape the influence of Ambrose’s legacy. And this was not the first time that Nabor, a Roman soldier from present-day Algeria who was martyred together with Felix (c. 304 CE), fell victim to the powers of the Milanese bishop. Nabor and Felix were originally Milan’s patron saints before Ambrose supplanted them in 386 with Gervasius and Protasius when he dedicated his new church, the Basilica Martyrum, eventually renamed the Basilica di San’Ambrogio. Today, all five of these saints remain buried in the basilica, giving Nabor plenty of opportunity to take up any unfinished or unfortunate business that he may have with St Ambrose of the Desventuradas Islands. 

The Tomb of Felix and Nabor in the Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio, Milan


See ‘The Isles of San Felix and San Nabor’ by B. Glanvill Corney in The Geographical Journal 56.3 (1920), pp. 196-200.

Sitting in San Carlo’s Chin: The Colossus of Arona


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DSC05796Sitting inside San Carlo’s chin is surprisingly comfortable. The rest was welcomed after the rather harrowing ascent up the saint’s midriff – a climb not recommended for pregnant women, people prone to dizziness and those still recovering from the flu. There is a good reason for the karabiner safety system alongside the perfectly vertical metal ladder – there seemed to be less reason why it wasn’t in use.

(photo: sitting on stairs leading into San Carlo’s head)

After being cuddled by Carlo, I stood up to look down his nostrils, and then stretched on my tip toes to gaze through the eyes of the world’s largest saint. The panoramic views of Lago Maggiore are magnificent.

Il Sancarlone, San Carlo’s colossal copper likeness, is formerly the world’s largest metal statue and, even today, has only been surpassed by the Statue of Liberty. For four Euros, you, too, can spend time in the head of Milan’s sixteenth-century holy man.

???????????????????????????????Total height: 35 meters

Height of the statue: 23.50 meters

Height of the pedestal: 11.50 meters

Height of his nose: .85 meter

Width of his eyes: .50 meter

Width of his mouth: .75 meter

Circumference of his thumb: 1 meter


San Carlo Borromeo, cardinal and archbishop of Milan, was born on October 2, 1538 in the castle of Arona (Rocca di Arona) overlooking Lago Maggiore. He died in Milan on November 4, 1584. The promotion of his cult began almost overnight, and he was canonized by Pope Paul V, just sixteen years later, on November 1, 1610.

The chief promoter of the cult of San Carlo was San Carlo’s own cousin, Federico Borromeo (1564-1631), also cardinal and archbishop of Milan. Federico oversaw the two cycles of devotional paintings (the Life of the Blessed Carlo and the Miracles of Saint Carlo Borromeo), commissioned in celebration of San Carlo’s beatification in 1602, which still hang in the Milan Duomo. Federico also supported the construction of San Carlo al Corso in Rome, which was begun in 1610.  

However, Federico’s pet project was closer to home in Arona. Federico envisioned, perhaps as early as 1598, a sacro monte, or holy mountain, in memory of San Carlo and surmounted by the world’s tallest statue. The original plan of the holy folly was for the erection of fifteen chapels, following a pathway from the lake to the statue square, each depicting through sculptures and frescoes an important event in the life of the saint. Federico laid the first stone of the sacro monte on July 13, 1614, and a seminary was built between 1620 and 1643. Yet, by 1656, only four of the chapels were finished. The grand scheme of San Carlo’s sacro Monte was never completed – but the statue itself became a smashing success.

The statue’s first stone was not laid until 1692 – some sixty years after the deaths of Cardinal Federico (d. 1631) and Giovanni Battista Crespi, known as Cerano (d. 1632), the statue’s designer.

The statue itself – variously known as il Sancarlone, il Colosso di San Carlo Borromeo and il Colosso di Arona – was built by Bernardo Falconi and Siro Zanelli and was dedicated on May 19, 1698 by the archbishop of Milan, Cardinal Federico Caccia (1634 – 1699).  

An adjacent church dedicated to San Carlo was completed between 1725 and 1728.

Today, the complex is maintained by Milan’s Biblioteca Ambrosiana.



Frédéric-Auguste Bartholdi (d. 1904), the designer of the Statue of Liberty, traveled to Arona to study the structure of the local statue, finally settling for a design that was roughly twice the dimensions of our copper Carlo. At the base of Bartholdi’s Liberty, which was dedicated on October 28, 1886, is a plague acknowledging her shorter Italian model.

The Statue of Liberty

Height of Statue: 46 meters

Total Height, including pedestal: 93 meters


Rocca di Arona, the birthplace of San Carlo, was razed to the ground by Napoleon’s army in 1800.

Blessed Carino of Balsamo: Milan’s Murderous Homeboy


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Murder of Peter MartyrHe murdered St Peter Martyr (St Peter of Verona) with an axe to the head. He was called a ‘minister of Satan’ by a thirteenth-century Dominican friar. Today, he is simply known as Blessed Carino of Balsamo (d. 1293).

Apparently, killing a saint makes a good portfolio for beatification. It has worked out well for Carino.

On April 6, 1252, Carino fatally struck St Peter Martyr in the forest of Barlassina some twenty-five kilometers north of Milan. Fleeing to Forlí, where he then lived and died, Carino spent centuries in Emila-Romagna before being translated back to Lombardy in 1934. Greater Milan’s wayward son now rests in the Church of San Martino in his hometown of Ciniseilo Balsamo just twelve kilometers north of the city.


Pope Innocent IV’s 1251 appointment of Peter of Verona as the inquisitor of Lombardy was not well-received by the local sympathizers of Catharism, who immediately began plotting Peter’s murder. The plot was organized by a certain Manfredo, who hired Carino to do the dirty work. Carino, in turn, hired his own accomplice, Alberto Porro of Lentate.

While Peter’s inquisitorial work was based out of Milan’s Dominican priory of Sant’Eustorgio, he maintained his role as the prior of the Como monastery, where he spent Easter in 1252. Carino likewise spent his Paschal holidays in Como, surveying the whereabouts of Peter, and when Peter and his traveling companion, Domenico, set off for Milan on Saturday, April 6, Carino’s ambush was laid and ready.

The attack took place along the Como – Milan highway. Carino’s accomplice, Alberto, immediately fled the scene, leaving Carino to commit the double murder on his own. From Carino’s own testimony, he apparently attacked Peter first and then fatally wounded Domenico before finishing Peter off with a blow to the skull. Iconography generally depicts the saint with a knife in his head.


For some unknown reason, Carino failed to flee the murder scene and was soon – and somehow – apprehended by a local farmer, who in turn handed him over to the civil authorities in Milan. Carino talked, providing an account of the attack and exposing the details of the conspiracy.

Ten days later, on April 16, 1252, Carino ‘escaped’ from jail, fleeing south to Forlí. There, Carino was struck by what appeared to be a terminal illness. Spending in the hospital of San Sebastiano what he presumed were his last days, Carino made a full confession to the local Dominican prior. Rather than hand Carino over for prosecution, the Dominicans absolved him and received him into their order.  Carino subsequently recovered from his illness and spent some forty years as a penitent lay brother of the Dominican order in Forlí before his death in 1293.

The image of Carino frequently appears in art dedicated to Saint Peter Martyr – depicted, as one may expect, as the brutal murderer rather than as the humble penitent. Save for a 1505 woodcarving in Milan’s Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio, which includes Peter and Carino among its representation of thirty-three Dominican saints, the two rarely meet as holy equals in the world of religious art, and the fact that an image of Blessed Carino is present in Peter’s home church – his tomb is in Sant’Eustorgio’s Portinari Chapel – is rather intriguing.

And, yet, throughout the centuries, Carino has enjoyed a modest, though successful, cult of his own. In the sixteenth century, the Dominican gyrovague Serafino Razzi (d. 1613) compiled a Life of Carino, and in 1822, the Dominicans applied to the Vatican to have the cult regulated, but the paperwork was lost after the death of Pious VII (d. 1823). The Dominicans tried again in 1910.

Finally in the twentieth century, the Forlí-based cult took root in Carino’s hometown of Ciniseilo Balsamo. On April 28, 1934, lead by Blessed Alfredo Ildefonso Schuster, Carino’s head was solemnly transferred from Forlí to Ciniseilo Balsamo, stopping en route at the Basilica of San Domenico in Bologna, where Carino’s head was placed upon Domenic’s tomb and was venerated by the murderer’s new fan base. Carino was then carted off to Balsamo, where the town’s populus and religious and civil leaders received its son ‘with indescribable enthusiasm, coming with torches, candles and banners’.  On November 4, 1964, the parish of Balsamo acquired the rest of Carino’s body. Heads and tails, Carino was now completely at home.

And, so to speak, the blessed saint had finally returned to the scene of the crime.


The Holy Nails of Lombardy


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3902-milan-cathedral-treasury-pax-ariberto-c1030-crucifixionWith respect to the relics of the Crucifixion – the so-called arma Christi (‘weapons of Christ, or Instruments of the Passion) – Lombardy has long since cornered the market on the Holy Nails. Milan’s Holy Nail (Santo Chiodo) is securely fixed to the top of the Duomo’s apse where it is identified by a red light. It’s free to view, but binoculars are recommended (see future post on Milan’s Santo Morso ‘Holy Bridle’ and the Rite of the Nivola)!

Some fifteen kilometers away, Monza’s Holy Nail comprises the inner band of the Corona Ferrea (‘Iron Crown’), Italy’s famed royal crown and national symbol (see future post on the Corona Ferrea). The Corona Ferrea is kept in the Chapel of Theodelinda of the Monza Duomo and costs four Euros for a fifteen minute viewing.

While there’s no such thing as ‘finders keepers’ with Christian relics – relics were frequently stolen and plundered, such as Milan’s relics of the Magi –  there has been a Milanese connection to the Holy Nails for over 1600 years. In 395 CE, Saint Ambrose of Milan made a historic digression in his funeral oration for Emperor Theodosius (347 – 395 CE) in which he provides our earliest extant source for the relics of the Holy Nails, purportedly discovered by Saint Helena during her Holy Land excursion in 326 – 328 CE.

In De obitu Theodosii (‘On the Death of Theodosius’), 47-50, Ambrose writes:

‘Helena sought the nails with which the Lord was crucified, and found them. From one nail she ordered a bridle to be made [the tradition linked to Milan], from the other she wove a diadem [the tradition linked with Monza]. She turned the one to an ornamental, the other to a devotional, use. So she sent to her son Constantine a diadem adorned with jewels which were interwoven with the iron of the Cross. She sent the bridle, also. Constantine used both, and transmitted his faith to later kings.

‘Wisely did Helena act who placed the cross on the head of sovereigns, that the Cross of Christ might be adored among kings. Good, therefore, is the nail of the Roman Empire. It rules the whole world and adorns the brow of princes, that they may be preachers who were accustomed to be persecutors. Rightly is the nail on the head, so that where the intelligence is, there may be protection, also.

‘On the head, a crown; in the hands, reins. A crown made from the Cross, that faith might shine forth; reins likewise from the Cross, that authority might govern, and that there might be just rule, not unjust legislation. May the princes also consider that this has been granted to them by Christ’s generosity, that in imitation of the Lord it may be said of the Roman emperor: Thou hast set on his head a crown of precious stones.

‘But I ask: Why was the holy relic upon the bridle if not to curb the insolence of emperors, to check the wantonness of tyrants, who as horses neigh after lust that they may be allowed to commit adultery unpunished?

‘What else, then, did Helena accomplish by her desire to guide the reins than to seem to say to all emperors through the Holy Spirit: “Do not become like the horse and mule, and with the bridle and bit to restrain the jaws of those who did not realize that they were kings to rule those subject to them”?’

Corona Ferrea

Ambrose does not directly say that the nails had found their way to Milan, but there is reason to believe that they had, especially given Milan’s status as an imperial capital. In any case, the legend of the two Holy Nails – the bridle and the crown – became respectively entrenched in Milan and Monza.   

But did Helena only find two nails? Ambrose only alludes to two. According to Gregory of Tours (c. 538 – 594 CE) in Gloria Martyrorum (The Glory of the Martyrs’), there were four. Helena used one to make the crown and two in reinforcing the bridle. And the fourth nail? Well, she chucked it into the sea:

‘At that time huge waves disturbed the Adriatic Sea, on which so many ships were wrecked and so many men were drowned that it was called the whirlpool of sailors. The far-sighted empress, concerned over the disasters of these miserable men, ordered one of the four nails to be thrown into the sea. She relied upon the pity of the Lord that he was able easily to calm the salvage rolling of the waves. Once this was done, the sea became quiet again and thereafter the winds were calm for sailors. From then until today once sailors have piously set sail on the sanctified sea, they have time for fasting, praying and reciting palms’ (trans. by Richard Van Dam).

The Edict of Milan


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313AD-MilanEdictASeventeen hundred years ago this month (February 313 CE), a wedding took place in the city of Milan. As weddings go, it was rather significant. The emperor Licinius (Augustus of the East) was in town to wed Constantia, the younger half-sister of the emperor Constantine (Augustus of the West). The occasion gave the emperors-cum-in-laws plenty of opportunity for imperial small-talk. And when the libations had quit flowing and the matrimonial dust had settled, the two Augustii promulgated one of the most extraordinary documents of its time – the Edict of Milan (Edictum Mediolanense), which granted religious tolerance throughout the Roman Empire. The Edict also mandated the return to Christian communities of previously confiscated property.

Prior to Milan, an edict of toleration had been issued on 30 April 311 in Nicomedia by the emperor Galerius. Remarkable for its time, this ideal – a state granting its citizens the authority to observe the religion of their preference – remains relevant today. In this case, the granting state was the Roman Empire, which for centuries had coerced its citizens to pay homage to the cult of the emperors and had been persecuting Christians at its political convenience for the past three centuries.

Constantine ExhibitThe anniversary of the Edict of Milan has not gone unnoticed. From 25 October 2012 through 17 March 2013, Milan’s Palazzo Reale is hosting the exhibition, Costantino 313 d.c. – L’Editto di Milano e il Tempo della Tolleranza. The exhibition, which contains more than 200 artifacts, reconstructs the topography of fourth-century imperial Milan and the events leading up to the promulgation of the Edict. It further explores political, historical and religious themes in the life of Constantine and the fourth-century Roman Empire.

It may be somewhat revisionist, however, to impute tolerance as a meaningful legacy of the Constantinian decree. Rather, the Edict represents more of a shift in the empire’s religious direction than a commitment to religious tolerance per se. Its particular importance was the legalization of Christianity, Constantine’s new-found religion which he famously embraced prior to the Battle of the Milvian Bridge (28 October 312), where he defeated his western rival, Maxentius, four months before issuing the Edict of Milan. Emperor worship may have been on its way out, but the will of the emperors still held the day, and in the end, the Edict served to consolidate Constantine’s imperial power.

On one hand, the Edict of Milan was a direct political maneuver by Constantine and Licinius against their rival Maximinus (Ceasar of the East), who had rescinded the previous Edict of Galerius (d. April/May 311) and had renewed persecutions against Christians in the East. Licinius defeated Maximinus later in the year and assumed full control of the East as its lone Augustus in August 313. On the other hand, while the Edict legalized Christianity, it did not stop Constantine from eventually executing the edict’s co-author, Licinius (below left), in 325, after defeating him in civil war in 324 CE. Apparently, there was little room for tolerance among imperial rivals, and Constantine (below center) ruled the empire as its sole emperor until his death in 337.


ConstantineITheodosius Coin

While Constantine is sometimes mistakenly credited with making Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire, this took place sixty-seven years later in 380 CE under Theodosius (d. 395, above right). In the meantime, the fourth-century empire experienced drastic shifts in its official religious expression as pagan, Arian and Nicene-Christian emperors all assumed the throne during this period. As Nicene Christianity gained a permanent ascendancy, people were once again denied the right to observe the religion, or even the Christianity, of their preference. The ideals of tolerance and religious freedom outlined in the Edict of Milan gave little protection to Jews and Arians.

The immediate effect of the Edict; however, made a significant impact upon the Christian topography of Milan and other cities throughout the empire. The Edict allowed the official building of new churches and the public burial of saints. One of the local ‘winners’ was Mirocles (Mirocle), the bishop of Milan. After the Edict, Mirocles (d. c. 316) started the erection of the basilica vetus, the city’s first cathedral, built on the location of the present-day Duomo.  He is buried in Milan’s San Vittore al Corpo.


The text of the Edict of Milan has been preserved in two different sources. The better known source is Church History (Historia Ecclesiastica), 10.5 by Eusebius (d. 339), which was written in the early 320s. However, as Eusebius viewed Licinius as Constantine’s political nemesis, he edited Licinius completely out of the text.

The second source, Lactantius, On the Deaths of the Persecutors (De Mortibus Persecutorum), 48 written before 315, contains a presumably more accurate version of the text (below):

The Edict of Milan

When I, Constantine Augustus, as well as I, Licinius Augustus, fortunately met near Mediolanurn (Milan), and were considering everything that pertained to the public welfare and security, we thought, among other things which we saw would be for the good of many, those regulations pertaining to the reverence of the Divinity ought certainly to be made first, so that we might grant to the Christians and others full authority to observe that religion which each preferred; whence any Divinity whatsoever in the seat of the heavens may be propitious and kindly disposed to us and all who are placed under our rule.

And thus by this wholesome counsel and most upright provision we thought to arrange that no one whatsoever should be denied the opportunity to give his heart to the observance of the Christian religion, of that religion which he should think best for himself, so that the Supreme Deity, to whose worship we freely yield our hearts) may show in all things His usual favor and benevolence.

Therefore, your Worship should know that it has pleased us to remove all conditions whatsoever, which were in the edicts formerly given to you officially, concerning the Christians and now any one of these who wish to observe the Christian religion may do so freely and openly, without molestation. We thought it fit to commend these things most fully to your care that you may know that we have given to those Christians free and unrestricted opportunity of religious worship.

When you see that this has been granted to them by us, your Worship will know that we have also conceded to other religions the right of open and free observance of their worship for the sake of the peace of our times, that each one may have the free opportunity to worship as he pleases; this regulation is made we that we may not seem to detract from any dignity or any religion.

Moreover, in the case of the Christians especially we esteemed it best to order that if it happens anyone heretofore has bought from our treasury from anyone whatsoever, those places where they were previously accustomed to assemble, concerning which a certain decree had been made and a letter sent to you officially, the same shall be restored to the Christians without payment or any claim of recompense and without any kind of fraud or deception. Those, moreover, who have obtained the same by gift, are likewise to return them at once to the Christians. Besides, both those who have purchased and those who have secured them by gift, are to appeal to the vicar if they seek any recompense from our bounty, that they may be cared for through our clemency. All this property ought to be delivered at once to the community of the Christians through your intercession, and without delay. And since these Christians are known to have possessed not only those places in which they were accustomed to assemble, but also other property, namely the churches, belonging to them as a corporation and not as individuals, all these things which we have included under the above law, you will order to be restored, without any hesitation or controversy at all, to these Christians, that is to say to the corporations and their conventicles: providing, of course, that the above arrangements be followed so that those who return the same without payment, as we have said, may hope for an indemnity from our bounty. In all these circumstances you ought to tender your most efficacious intervention to the community of the Christians, that our command may be carried into effect as quickly as possible, whereby, moreover, through our clemency, public order may be secured.

Let this be done so that, as we have said above, Divine favor towards us, which, under the most important circumstances we have already experienced, may, for all time, preserve and prosper our successes together with the good of the state. Moreover, in order that the statement of this decree of our good will may come to the notice of all, this edict, published by your decree, shall be announced everywhere and brought to the knowledge of all, so that the decree of this, our benevolence, cannot be concealed.

St Sebastian and the Milan Plague of 1576-1577


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Riddled with arrows and left to die, St Sebastian (San Sebastiano), one of the most popular saints in sacred art, was a child of Milan. According to St Ambrose, he was a native of the city, while other sources, which place his birth in Narbonne, France, agree that he spent his adolescent years in Milan before moving to Rome, where he was martyred during the Diocletian persecutions.

Among his attributes, St Sebastian (d. ca. 288) is a protector saint against the plague, a primary reason for his medieval popularity.

His presence has been felt in Lombardy, particularly in the cities of Pavia and Milan. According to Paul the Deacon (d. 799), the plague of 680 stopped only after an arm relic of the saint was moved from Rome and set up in the church of San Pietro in Vincoli in Pavia. The story is repeated in the thirteenth-century Golden Legend (Legenda Aurea), which names Sebastian as one of the Fourteen Holy Helpers.

St Sebastian played a special role in Milan’s struggle to combat the plague of 1576-77.

After the Spanish governor fled Milan upon the outbreak of the plague, Archbishop San Carlo Borromeo (1538-1584), whose legacy has been largely shaped by the administrative and pastoral care that he gave during the crisis, assumed responsibility for the city’s governance. He also led the church’s cultic response to the calamity, invoking the assistance of St Sebastian. On October 15, 1576, Borromeo officially pronounced a public vow which included the reconstruction of the city’s ancient church of San Sebastiano. The project was entrusted to Carlo’s favorite architect, Pellegrino Tibaldi, and the foundation stone to the new building was laid on September 6, 1577. On January 20, 1578, on the feast of St Sebastian, the plague was officially declared to be over.

Pellegrino Tibaldi worked on the church until 1587. Construction continued under Pietro Antonio Barca and Fabio Mangone. The round Mannerist building, whose design was likely influenced by Rome’s Pantheon and which transgressed the architectural norms of the Counter Reformation, was finally finished in the seventeenth century. Reflecting its ambiguity as both a church and a civic structure, the building is known as La Chiesa di San Sebastiano as well as Il Tempio Civico di San Sebastiano.

DSC03362San_Sebastiano_MilanSan Sebastian_Milan2


Milan is further connected with St Sebastian for providing the earlier source of the saint’s martyrdom, which comes from the pen of St Ambrose:

‘Take the example of the martyr Sebastian, whose birthday in glory we celebrate today. He was a native of Milan. At a time when persecution either had ceased or had not yet begun or was of a milder kind, he realized that there was only one slight, if any, opportunity for suffering. He set out for Rome, where bitter persecutions were raging because of the fervor of the Christians. There he endured suffering; there he gained his crown. He went to the city as a stranger and there established a home of undying glory. If there had been only one persecutor, he would not have gained a martyr’s crown’ (St Ambrose, Sermon 22: Exposition of Psalm 118).

Although Ambrose’s account is short on details, recorded references to arrows and the plague would follow. According to a fifth-century description of his passion, the St Sebastian was active in the Roman army making converts to the Christian faith when his activities came to the attention of the Rome emperor Diocletian. When Sebastian remained obstinate in his Christian faith, the emperor ordered him to be tied to a tree and shot to death. However, after the archers riddled him with arrows and left him for died, a certain Irene of Rome, who came to attend to his body, found him still alive and carried him to her home where she nursed his wounds. Shortly afterwards, St Sebastian confronted Diocletian in person, who had him arrested and beaten to death with clubs. He is sometimes referred to as the twice-martyred saint.

After his death, St Sebastian visited a pious woman named Lucina, informing her of the location of his body and instructing her to bury him in the catacombs on the Appian Way near where the bodies of St Peter and St Paul were buried at the time. In 376, Pope Damasus I built the Basilica of the Apostles on the site, which was later rededicated to St Sebastian, who remains the third patron saint of Rome after Peter and Paul. The current church, known as San Sebastiano fuori le mura (Saint Sebastian outside the walls) or San Sebastiano ad Catacumbas (Saint Sebastian at the Catacombs), is a seventeenth-century structure. It was one of the Seven Pilgrim Churches of Rome until 2000 when Pope John II (d. 2005) replaced it with the Santuario della Madonna del Divino Amore.

In 826, the saint’s relics were translated to the Abbey of St Medard in Soissons, France, a gift from Pope Eugene II (d. 827) to Abbot Hilduin (d. 830), establishing Soissons as a new center for the cult of St Sebastian.  


St Sebastian has occupied an important place in the imagination of artists from the early middle ages to modern times.

Perhaps the earliest artistic representation of St Sebastian is a sixth century mosaic in the Basilica of Sant’Apollinare Nuovo in Ravenna, Italy (left). One of some twenty-six depicted martyrs, the figures are all identical in expression and lack any distinctive features. A mosaic in Rome’s Church of San Pietro in Vincoli, probably made in 682 shortly after the plague of 680, shows a grown, bearded man in court dress but lacks any trace of arrows.

The saint’s common depiction as a handsome young soldier pierced but not mortally wounded by arrows only first appears around the year 1000 and became especially popular with Renaissance painters, including Rubens (1577-1640), Mantegna (c. 1431-1506) and Botticelli (c. 1445-1510), in response to the Black Death.

St Sebastian has continued to capture the imagination of modern artists. In 1914, Austrian Expressionist Egon Schiele painted a self-portrait as Saint Sebastian (left), while Salvador Dali created numerous paintings of the saint (below). More recently, Damien Hirst (2007) produced Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain, which depicts a young bull shot with arrows in a tank of formaldehyde. The work has been purchased by George Michael. (Also see Hirst’s sculpture of St Bartholomew which appears in a previous post). 


While there is no indication of St Sebastian’s sexuality in the hagiographical sources, there has been a subtext of homosexuality in the representation of the saint since the Renaissance, and he is unofficially the patron saint of the Catholic gay community.  The British film, Sebastiane (1976), directed by Derek Jarman, controversially treated the character of St Sebastian as a homosexual icon. It also has the distinction of being the first film ever recorded entirely in Latin.


REM’s video, Losing My Religionwhich won video of the year at the 1991 MTV Video Music Awards, includes imagery of St Sebastian, as does the image of Tom Cruise below.


Veni, Redemptor gentium


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When St Ambrose (Sant’ Ambrogio) wasn’t confronting emperors, defeating Arianism, digging up relics or giving advice to virgins, he occasionally dabbled in hymn writing.

All in all, St Ambrose (d. 397) did okay for himself. His hymn, Veni, Redemptor gentium, has become an Advent classic.


Veni, Redemptor gentium;
Ostende partum virginis;
Miretur omne saeculum.
Talis decet partus Deo.

O come, Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth.
Let every age in wonder fall,
such birth befits the God of all.

Most notably, Veni, Redemptor gentium (full text below) has been favorably received by the Protestant tradition. In 1524, Martin Luther translated the hymn as Nun komm, der Heiden Heiland, and the Lutheran chorale has been sung on the first Sunday of Advent for centuries. The chorale was widely used in organ arrangements by Protestant composers of the Baroque period, including Bach (d. 1750), Sweelinck (d. 1621) and Telemann (d. 1767), whose works were played today during a lunchtime concert held in Milan’s Civico Tempio di San Sebastiano. Some sixteen centuries later, Ambrose’s O Come, Redeemer of the earth has come home in the form of German organ music.


Today, Veni, Redemptor gentium remains one of the few fourth-century songs that you can find on youtube, including this ethereal rendition by Lisbeth Scott.


DSC03355Speaking of Advent, Milan does it in spades. While the Protestant world and rest of Catholicism spend four Sundays preparing for Christmas, the archdiocese of Milan, which follows the Ambrosian liturgical rite, takes six weeks, extending the season of Advent into the middle of November.

Milanese children are not so lucky as to have chocolate advent calendars, which are popular in Germany and Britain, and, thus, to have six weeks of daily chocolate; however, Milan’s divergent tradition is clearly expressed in another classic image of the season – the Advent wreath (la corona dell’Avvento) – which locally boasts six candles instead of four (also see below).


Finally, what do you give the person who has everything for Christmas? Simple. A Milanese gargoyle.

Since November, the 135 gargoyles of Milan’s Cathedral (Duomo) have been put up for adoption to raise money for the building’s ongoing renovation, a move that has been further necessitated by cuts in Italy’s culture budget. For a donation of €100,000, contributors will have their name inscribed underneath the gargoyle of their choice. Gifts certificates, no doubt, are also available.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays from Medieval Milanetc!



Veni, Redemptor gentium;
Ostende partum virginis;
Miretur omne saeculum.
Talis decet partus Deo.

O come, Redeemer of the earth,
and manifest thy virgin-birth.
Let every age in wonder fall:
such birth befits the God of all.

Non ex virili semine,
Sed mystico spiramine
Verbum Dei tactum est caro,
Fructusque ventris floruit.

Begotten of no human will
but of the Spirit, Thou art still
the Word of God in flesh arrayed,
the promised fruit to man displayed.

Alvus tumescit virginis.
Claustrum pudoris permanet;
Vexilla virtutum micant,
Versatur in templo Deus.

The Virgin’s womb that burden gained,
its virgin honor still unstained.
The banners there of virtue glow;
God in his temple dwells below.

Procedit e thalamo suo,
Pudoris aulo regia,
Geminae gigans substantiae
Alacris ut currat viam.

Proceeding from His chamber free
that royal home of purity
a giant in twofold substance one,
rejoicing now His course to run.

Aequalis aeterno Patri,
Carnis tropaeo accingere,
Infirma nostri corporis
Virtute firmans perpeti.

O equal to the Father, Thou!
gird on Thy fleshly mantle now;
the weakness of our mortal state
with deathless might invigorate.

Praesepe iam fulget tuum,
Lumenque nox spirat novum,
Quad nulla nox interpolet
Fideque iugi luceat.

Thy cradle here shall glitter bright,
and darkness breathe a newer light
where endless faith shall shine serene
and twilight never intervene.

Gloria tibi, Domine,
Qui natus es de virgine,
Cum Patre et saneto Spiritu,
In sempiterna saecula.

All praise, eternal Son, to Thee,
whose advent sets Thy people free,
whom, with the Father, we adore,
and Holy Ghost, for evermore. Amen.

Translation by J. M. Neale (1818-1866)

The Basilica di San Simpliciano

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.

Gaetano Previati (d. 1920), The battle of Legnano: Prayer on the Carroccio before battle


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.

Down with the Arians! SS Gervasius and Protasius of Milan


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Along with his theological writings, St Ambrose of Milan (d. 397) adopted a material and spiritual strategy – new church construction and the promotion of the cult of the saints – for combating Arianism (i.e., the view that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was subordinate to God the Father). His main antagonist was the Empress Justina (d. ca. 391).

In short, if Ambrose could produce the right quality of churches, saints and miracles in the name of the pro-Nicene cause, which accepted the Trinitarian doctrine of the Nicene Creed (325), he could effectively neutralize the Arian threat. It literally became a scavenger hunt for the soul(s) of the city of Milan.

Ambrose’s building efforts included the Basilica Apostolorum (now San Nazaro in Brolo), the Basilica Virginum (now San Simpliciano) and his crowning achievement, the Basilica Martyrum, which was eventually renamed in his honor as the Basilica di San’Ambrogio.

At the time, Nabor and Felix, two Roman soldiers from present-day Algeria, who were martyred twenty-five kilometers from Milan, were the city’s patron saints. Yet, as holy as Nabor and Felix were, they did not make the cut for Ambrose’s new basilica. The stakes were simply too high.

Milan – and the pro-Nicene Church – needed its own native martyr. What Ambrose found were twin brothers, SS Gervasius and Protasius, whose martyrdom in Milan is variously dated to the reigns of Nero (54-68), Marcus Aurelius (161-180) and Diocletian (284-305). The traditional date of their death is October 14.

While their historical dates are unclear, on June 7, 386, the bodies of the martyred saints, Gervasius and Protasius, were discovered in the cemetery of the Basilica of Nabor and Felix, providing Ambrose with just the relics that he had been looking for. The translation of the relics and the dedication of the pro-Nicene basilica took place a few days later on June 19, which is still celebrated as Gervasius and Protasius’ feast day by the Roman Catholic Church.

A delighted Ambrose shares the story of the saints’ discovery in a letter to his sister, Marcellina: ‘I found the fitting signs, and on bringing in some people on whom hands were laid, the power of the holy martyrs became so manifest that even whilst I was still silent one was seized and thrown prostrate at the holy burial place. There, we found two men of marvelous stature, such as those of ancient days. All the bones were perfect, and there was much blood’.

In the end, the proof was in the miracles. Saint Augustine, who witnessed these events while he was still in Milan, describes the effects the miracles had in curbing the advance of Arianism: ‘For it was only about a year – not much more – since Justina, the mother of the boy-emperor Valentinian, had persecuted the servant Ambrose on behalf of her heresy, in which she had been seduced by the Arians. The devoted people kept guard in the church, prepared to die with their bishop. . . . Then by a vision God made known to the renowned bishop the spot where the bodies of Gervasius and Protasius, the martyrs, lay, whom God had preserved uncorrupted for so many years in a secret storehouse, in order to produce them at a fit time to check a woman’s fury – a woman indeed, but also a queen! When they were discovered and dug up and brought with due honor to the basilica of Ambrose, as they were borne along the road, many who were troubled by unclean spirits were healed. And there was also a certain man, a well-known citizen of the city, blind many years, who, when he had asked and learned the reason for the people’s tumultuous joy, rushed out and begged his guide to lead him to the place. When he arrived there, he begged to be permitted to touch with his handkerchief the bier of the saints. When he had done this, and put it to his eyes, they were immediately opened. The fame of all this spread abroad; from this God’s glory shone more brightly. And also from this the mind of that angry woman, though not enlarged to the sanity of a full faith, was nevertheless restrained from the fury of persecution’ (Augustine, Confessions, 9.7.15).

A similar account is given by Paulinus the Deacon (fl. 422), who describes the discovery of the relics in his Life of Saint Ambrose: ‘About the same time, the holy martyrs Protasius and Gervasius revealed themselves to the bishop. For they had been placed in the Basilica of Nabor and Felix. The holy martyrs Nabor and Felix were visited very often, while the names as well as the sepulchers of Gervasius and Protasius were unknown, and to such an extent that all walked over their sepulchers who wished to approach the grates by which the sepulchers of the holy martyrs Nabor and Felix were protected from harm. But, when the bodies of the holy martyrs were raised and placed on biers, the diseases of many were shown to have been healed. Even a blind man, Severus by name, who even now piously serves in the same basilica which is called the Ambrosian, into which the bodies of the martyrs were taken, when he touched their garments, received his sight immediately. Likewise, bodies possessed by unclean spirits returned to their homes with the greatest gratitude after they had been healed. And as by these beneficial works of the martyrs the faith of the Catholic Church increased, so did the heresy or the Arians decrease’ (Chapter 5).

In the end, miracles speak louder than theology. Ambrose won the scavenger hunt and the soul of the city of Milan.

The relics of Gervasius and Protasius can still be seen at the Basilica di San’Ambrogio.