Together with the Duomo, the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio is the cradle of history and spirituality in Milano and a treasure trove of sacred art.
Great popular devotion revolves around the basilica that has always been a destination for pilgrims and visitors.
The basilica’s entrance, the magnificent atrium consisting of columns with capitals carved in relief, is a suitable introduction to the venerated atmosphere typical of ecclesiastical interiors.
Upon entering visitors encounter a gabled facade opened by two superimposed loggias that are linked with the inside of the porch and framed at the top by two bell towers, the one on the left is the Torre dei Canonici (Canons’ Tower, 1141) and the right one is the Torre dei Monaci (Monks’ Tower, 842).
Today, the Basilica, dedicated to the bishop of Milano, is a magnificent example of Romanesque architecture in Lombardy.
Built between 379 and 386 it was originally called the "Basilica Martyrum" at the behest of Sant'Ambrogio. Constructed in the middle of a vast area (Hortus Philipphi) reserved for Christian burials and characterized by the presence of small cells in commemoration of the martyrs, the basilica - dedicated to the martyrs Gervasio and Protasio - was initially intended to accommodate the tomb of its founder.
The church has three naves, two lateral and one central; the ceiling consists of ribbed vaults and pillars that create momentum and harmony. Not much of the original basilica Martyrum remains in the basilica of Sant'Ambrogio but valuable evidence of the time can still be found.
Amongst these is the magnificent Sarcophagus of Stilicone, a great treasure that is traditionally attributed to the general Theodosius but was probably commissioned by a high-ranking person connected to the Milanese court.
Some of the decoration of the interior walls still remains, such as some polychrome marble inlays and a marble balustrade probably belonging to the railing of the altar of the holy martyrs, bearing a Christogram embellished with the letters alpha and omega. Incredibly, two precious carved wood panels from the entrance door commissioned by Ambrogio have also been preserved.
A stroll along the aisles becomes a fascinating journey through art and history to admire the numerous precious decorations on the vaults. However, the eye is inevitably drawn towards the fulcrum of the basilica: the ciborium, an elegant canopy decorated with Byzantine Lombard stucco supported by four Roman columns that enclose and preserve the masterpiece of Carolingian art (the only existing example preserved in precious metals): the Golden Altar.
History narrates that, probably in the ninth century, bishop Angilberto moved the bishops’ relics into a porphyry sarcophagus which was then covered by the precious altar, called ‘di Vuolvinio’ in homage to the author of the magnificent work. Scenes from the life of Christ are depicted on the front and the life of Sant'Ambrogio can be admired on the back.
However, even this transformation was not the final one. The subsequent construction of the crypt in the tenth century, with the elevation of the choir floor, brought other changes. Currently the remains of Gervasio, Protasio and Ambrogio are placed in a silver urn under the altar.
The precious Golden Altar by the master goldsmith Vuolvinio (835). Plus, the frescoes and mosaics of the seventh chapel - that leads to the chapel of San Vittore in Ciel d'Oro - the vast mosaic apse depicting the Redeemer with Saints Gervasio and Protasio.
Last but not least, there is the imposing late Roman Sarcophagus of Stilicone.
Originally San Vittore in Ciel d'Oro - a small trapezoidal room with a crypt, connected to the name of Satyr by an epitaph in a ninth-century transcript - was independent of the church, closed by an apse. However, according to tradition, the chapel was construed as the enduring memorial of a previous enclosed wall or a memoriae cell, the original tomb of SS. Vittore and Satiro. The excavations in the area of the alleged graves in the chapel crypt revealed a sarcophagus presumably from Milano in the fourth century, containing the remains of several bodies, possibly the relics of San Vittore and San Satiro buried in the ninth century; however nothing confirms this hypothesis just as nothing documents that the niches found in the crypt ever conserved the bodies.
The structure takes its name from the golden ceiling tiles and contains the oldest-known depiction of Bishop Ambrogio whose face is represented with impressive realism, despite the intricate mosaic technique.
The representations adorning the rooms in the Shrine of the Basilica of S. Ambrogio are magnificent: likenesses of Gervasio and Protasio and, to the right, Materno between Nabore and Felice. In the highest part of the dome, the bust of San Vittore is depicted with gold tiles: the jewelled crown of martyrs is placed on his head. The mosaic decoration of the chapel is one of the few remaining testimonies of the use of mosaics designed to embellish the great basilicas with "Lumina Vitae", often used in Milan in the fifth century. The crypt also contains a late third-century pagan Roman sarcophagus that belonged to a centurion and was then reused for a Christian burial.
The sacellum, since converted into a basilica dedicated to S. Satyr, was incorporated into the basilica complex in 400. The current appearance is due to its nineteenth-century restoration but the last conservation work on the mosaics dates back to 1981-1989.
Ambrogio was sent to Milano as prefect for northern Italy and, therefore, was assigned to mediate the discord surrounding the appointment of the new bishop. It was at this point that, after listening to his speeches on peace and the good of the nation, the people chose him as the new representative of the Church of Milano. At first, Ambrogio did not want to accept but encouraged by the Emperor he was persuaded to become a bishop.
In the central nave, on top of a column in Elba porphyry lies a bronze serpent with a sinuous body. According to legend, it was the serpent forged in the desert by Moses to defend his people from the pangs of this reptile. Indeed it was believed that anyone who had been bitten could have his life saved by simply looking at the bronze snake.
How the snake actually arrived in the Basilica of S. Ambrogio is even more legendary. Around the year 1000, Arnolfo, Archbishop of Milan, set off to Constantinople to lead a Byzantine bride to Emperor Otto III. The mission failed because the emperor died before seeing his bride and the princess was repatriated but the bronze serpent, which was one of the wedding gifts, remained in Milano.
As soon as it was placed in the Basilica of S.Ambrogio, the Milanese saw it as a magic object with healing properties able to cure diseases and intestinal worms.
The legend still holds other surprises: it is said that the snake will come to life on doomsday and that it will descend from the column and return to the Valley of Josaphat where it was forged by the hands of Moses.