Not everyone knows it but Milano has its own ‘Sistine Chapel’: this gem of art history, the Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, can be found a few minutes’ walk from the Castello Sforzesco or Duomo, in Corso Magenta.
Magnificent images of saints, martyrs and benefactors adorn the walls and ceilings entirely, in a decorative fresco cycle that takes the visitor through the evolution of Lombard painting in the 16th century.
The layout of this church is unique, as the single elongated rectangular nave is separated in two parts by a dividing wall: the outer section was reserved to laymen while the enclosure was for the cloistered nuns to attend Holy Mass.
The church was once attached to the most important female Benedictine convent in Milano, from the 8th - 9th century up until 1798. The nuns came from noble families in the city, who generously bequeathed the monastery with great riches that made commissions for such intricate and precious embellishment possible.
It is believed that the two portraits of noble patrons kneeling, presented by saints, painted in the lunettes of the Laymen's Hall, depict the noble benefactors Alessandro Bentivoglio and Ippolita Sforza.
The splendour of the decoration is indeed remarkable, and the passage into the smaller nuns’ chancel reveals another sapce that was formerly not known to exist but that could easily compare in beauty to some of the greatest churches in the world.
Two Roman towers are visible in the cloister (which is now occupied by the Archaeological Museum), preserved intact up to the roof. One is square-shaped and was presumably the starting point for horse races in the Roman Circus, while the other is polygonal, with twenty-four sides. The latter was part of the circle of the city's defensive walls. Both towers are dated to the late 3rd - early 4th century AD. Indeed the complex was built in a part of the city that had been very important since the Roman era, in what was once the area of the Circus, not far from the Imperial palace.
The Besozzi chapel, the third on the right, depicts scenes from the martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria. According to Matteo Bandello, a contemporary storyteller, in the beheading scene the saint’s face is actually that of the Countess of Challant who, accused of having instigated her lover’s death, was executed in 1526 at the Castello Sforzesco. An indelible reminder of one of the most famous titbit of 16th century gossip in Milano!