Back in January I visited one of my favorite churches in Milan, Basilica di Sant’Ambrogio (Basilica of Saint Ambrose). I love exploring churches in Milan. Everyone knows that Milan’s iconic church is the Duomo, but few realize there are so many historic, beautiful churches in the city. As a Protestant, I especially like learning about early church history and there is lots to learn here. Milan’s history is long and rich and its Christian roots are some of the oldest in the world. Saint Ambrose, who was the bishop of Milan in the fourth century, built the church on the site of what was believed to be the graves of martyrs.
The building was consecrated in 379 and named Basilica Martyrum. Eventually, Ambrose was laid to rest in the crypt with the bodies of two 2nd century martyrs by his side and the church was renamed in his honor. In fact, you can still walk down into the crypt and get a glimpse of Ambrose, Gervasius and Protasius (martyred in the 2nd century). If you have teenage boys, you will score big points if you take them down into the crypt; “creepy” and “cool” were the adjectives my teenage son used.
Over the centuries the Basilica has undergone renovations and repairs. What exists now is the result of a 12th century renovation in the Romanesque style but there are bits and pieces of the 4th century building that remain. As someone who comes from a relatively young country, my mind is baffled when I walk into this church. It’s hard to digest that a building has existed for 1,641 years continuously (!). As I stood in the nave, I thought, “How many people have walked on these on these stones?” I’m sure the answer is hundreds of thousands, if not millions.
The architecture of this building is really stunning but I find the oldest parts of basilica to be the most interesting. San Vittore in Ciel d’oro, a small little chapel that existed before the construction of the Basilica, was incorporated into the building. It was originally a dome shaped chapel whose use is debated. Some say it was the funerary chapel for Ambrose’ brother, Satyrus, and others believe it was a chapel dedicated to the martyrs. Now it serves as a sparse little museum the highlight being the dome ceiling where you’ll find the oldest intact paleo Christian mosaics in all of Italy. There’s debate as to exactly how old they are, but scholars such as Gilliam Mackie agree they likely date to the late 300s or early 400s. On the ceiling is a mosaic of Victor Maurus, a Roman Praetorian who destroyed pagan altars and was beheaded for his crimes in 303 during the persecution that took place during the reign of Emperor Diocletian. Saints Nebor and Felix, also early Christian martyrs, and the earliest picture of Saint Ambrose are depicted on the walls just below the dome. The symbolism and detail in these mosaics are incredible.
Things to know before you visit:
Getting there– The basilica is located in the heart of Milan’s historic city center at . Driving is not recommended. Parking is very limited and the streets are confusing. There is a metro stop called “S.Ambroggio” on the green metro line which is just a few steps from the church. If you’re coming into the city on a suburban train (Trenord), take the train to the Milano Cadorna station. From there the church is a short 10 minute walk.
Admission – Admission is free to the church and crypt are free. There is a tiny museum where you can see church relics but the highlight is visiting San Vittore in Ciel d’oro, the little chapel whose ceiling and high walls house the famous early Christian mosaics mentioned above. There’s a small fee of 3 euro to enter.
Hours – 9:00 am to 6:30 pm, Monday through Saturday, 10:30 to 7:00 p.m. on Sundays. Note that this is a functioning church so hours are subject to change. For example, I once tried to visit but was turned away because a wedding was in progress.
Attire – Like all other Roman Catholic churches in Italy, there is a dress code. Bare shoulders, shorts, mini-skirts, and exposed bellies are not allowed. You’re visiting one of the most ancient places of worship in all of Italy that still functions as a church, so please be respectful of their rules.