Each city has its patron saint or protector and Milano is certainly no exception: Sant’Ambrogio, bishop of the city from 374 to 397, was one of the most important ecclesiastical figures in the 4th century. He was very highly esteemed and, even today, throughout the diocese of Milano the Holy Mass is celebrated in the Ambrosian Rite, somewhat different from the Roman rite celebrated in the rest of the world.
A visit to this church dedicated to the patron saint is a highly recommended: the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio is one of the most important churches in the world, the cradle of history and spirituality in Milano and a paradigm of the Romanesque style. Great popular devotion revolves around the basilica that has always been a destination for pilgrims and visitors, as well as the other churches founded by the Holy Bishop: San Simpliciano and San Nazaro Maggiore.
The basilica’s entrance, the magnificent atrium consisting of four columns with capitals carved in relief, anticipates the venerated atmosphere typical of ecclesiastical interiors.
Constructed between 379 and 386, and then rebuilt in the Romanesque period, it was originally called "Basilica Martyrum" (Basilica of the Martyrs) at the behest of Sant’Ambrogio. Constructed in the centre of a large 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 - still preserves the remains of the two saints, and of Sant'Ambrogio himself, beneath the altar.
Absolutely not to be missed is the splendid Golden Altar by the master goldsmith Vuolvinio (835 AD) with intricate carved scenes from the life of Christ on the front of the altar and stunning images of the life of Sant'Ambrogio on the back. Also remarkable is the vast apse mosaic depicting the Redeemer between Saints Gervasio and Protasio and the imposing late-Roman Stilicho’s sarcophagus.
The chapel of San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro certainly merits a visit: the small trapezoidal room with a crypt was originally independent of the basilica, closed by an apse. It takes its name from the golden tesserae of the vaulted ceiling and boasts the oldest-known depiction of Bishop Ambrogio, whose face is represented extremely realistically despite the complexity of the mosaic technique. The bust of San Vittore is depicted with gold tesserae in the highest part of the dome with the jewelled crown of martyrs placed on his head.
In the central nave, on top of a column in Elba porphyry, lies a sinuous bronze serpent. According to legend, it was the serpent forged in the desert by Moses to defend his people from this reptile’s bite. Indeed it was believed that anyone who had been bitten could have their life saved by simply beholding this bronze sculpted snake.
The story of the snake’s arrival in the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio is even more legendary. Around the year 1000, Arnolfo, Archbishop of Milano, set off to Constantinople to accompany a Byzantine bride to the 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 magical 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 originally forged by the hands of Moses.
Outside the basilica stands a pillar called "the devil's column" since, according to popular legend, the devil's horns punctured two holes in the shaft of the column when he was thrown against it in the fight with Sant'Ambrogio that transpired here.