Important places have their own Patron Saint or protector and Milano is certainly no exception: St. Ambrose, bishop of the city from 374 to 397, was one of the most important personalities of the 4th century Church. He was very highly esteemed and, to this day, throughout the diocese of Milano the Holy Mass is celebrated in the Ambrosian Rite, slightly different from the Roman rite celebrated in the rest of the world.
A visit to this church dedicated to the Patron Saint is definitely a must: the Sant'Ambrogio Basilica 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. Heartfelt popular devotion revolves around the basilica, which has always been a destination for pilgrims and visitors, as it does around the other churches founded by the holy Bishop: San Simpliciano and San Nazaro Maggiore.
The basilica’s entrance, the columns of the magnificent atrium, their capitals carved in amazing relief, anticipate the venerated atmosphere within the church.
Built between 379 and 386, and then rebuilt in the Romanesque period, it was originally named Basilica Martyrum (Basilica of the Martyrs) at the behest of St. Ambrose. Erected at 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 St. Ambrose himself, beneath the altar.
Absolutely not to be missed is the splendid Golden Altar by the master goldsmith Vuolvinio (835 AD) with stunning carved scenes from the life of Christ on the front and from the life of St. Ambrose on the back. Also remarkable is the vast apse mosaic depicting the Redeemer between Saints Gervasio and Protasio and the imposing late-Roman sarchopagus of Stilicho.
The chapel of San Vittore in Ciel d’Oro definitely deserves 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 Ambrose, whose face is represented with extreme realism despite the complexity of the mosaic technique. The bust of St. Vittore is depicted with gold tesserae in the highest part of the dome, 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 forged in the desert by Moses to defend his people from the reptile’s bite. Indeed it was believed that anyone who had been bitten could have their life saved by simply looking at this bronze sculpted snake.
The story of the snake’s arrival in the Basilica is even more legendary. Around AD 1000, Arnolfo, Archbishop of Milano, set off to Constantinople to bring back with him a Byzantine bride for the Emperor Otto III. The mission failed because the emperor died before seeing his bride and the princess was repatriated soon after: but the bronze serpent, which was one of the wedding gifts, remained in Milano.
As soon as it was placed in the Basilica, the Milanese started talking about it as a magical object with healing properties, which could cure diseases.
There is more to the legend: it is said that the snake will come to life on doomsday and that it will slide down 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" as, according to popular legend, the devil's horns punctured two holes in the shaft of the column when he was thrown against it by St. Ambrose during a fight they had right in front of it.