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 and the Duomo, in Corso Magenta.
Magnificent images of saints, martyrs and benefactors completely adorn the walls and ceilings within the illusionistic faux architecture with a decorative fresco cycle that takes the visitor through the evolution of Lombard painting in the 1500s.
The layout of this church is unique as the single elongated rectangular nave is separated into two parts by a divisor wall: a section for the laity and an enclosure for the cloistered nuns to hear Holy Mass.
It 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 enabled commissions for such intricate and precious embellishment.
It is believed that the two portraits of noble patrons kneeling and presented by female saints, frescoed in the lunettes of the partition in the Hall of the Faithful, depict the noble benefactors Alessandro Bentivoglio and Ippolita Sforza.
The splendour of the decoration is remarkable and the passage into the smaller nuns’ chancel reveals another ambient that was 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 in use as the Archaeological Museum), preserved intact up to the roof: one is square-shaped and was used as a starting point for horse races in the circus and the other is polygonal with twenty-four sides. The latter was part of the circle of defensive walls; both are late 3rd - early 4th century AD. Indeed the complex was built in a part of the city that had been very important since Roman era, on the circus area, not far from the Imperial palace.
The Besozzi chapel, the third on the right, represents scenes from the martyrdom of S. Caterina d’Alessandria. According to Matteo Bandello, storyteller of the time, in the beheading scene the saint’s face actually represents the Countess of Challant who, accused of having instigated her lover’s death, was executed in the same way in 1526 at the Castello Sforzesco. An indelible reminder of the most famous titbit of 16th century gossip in Milano!