Inner courtyard of the Basilica (by FlavMi, CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons)
We are walking through bustling streets and busy trafficked roads, but if we were visitors of the 3rd century CE, we would follow an ancient cobblestone road that, through fields and meadows, would lead us towards the ancient defensive walls visible in the distance. Instead, we now stop at the famous Basilica of St. Ambrogio, one of the oldest churches in Milan that brings the name of its founder, Saint Ambrose, or Ambrose of Milan.
It was built outside the Roman walls, in the direction of the ancient access of the city, Porta Vercellina. In this particular area, Christians were martyred during the Roman persecutions.
Before Christianity became the dominant cultural element of the European middle-ages, it spread gradually into recognition inside a very hostile pagan Roman empire. Martyrs were the vocal proponents of the new underground religion, facing prosecution and often torture and death.
Their burials resulted in the construction of a cemetery “ad Martires” (of the martyrs), not far from the previously visited imperial mausoleum. In fact, it is essential to understand that until the 4th century BCE, different religions were sometimes the cause of violence all over the Roman Empire. The rising Christian belief opposed the traditional gods of the polytheistic Roman religion, resulting in fatal crashes. According to the conventional interpretation, in the year 313 BCE, Constantine and Licinius, respectively Emperors of the Western and Eastern Roman Empire, met here, in the ancient Mediolanum, where they discussed a challenging issue for that time: granting all citizens, including Christians, the freedom to worship their gods. This “edict” was later approved and written down, becoming through the ages the ‘Edict of Milan’, a crucial step in history towards the establishment of freedom of belief.
The origin of the Basilica dates back to Ambrose, one of the most influential personalities in the Roman Church of the 4th century and later venerated as a saint. Remarkably, he was the bishop of Milan, who, during his time, had significant power over the political and religious choices of the empire. Back then, the boundaries between religious and political activity were very blurred. As a man of the church, Ambrose represented a solid adviser for the emperors of the time, Theodosius and Gratian. The figure of Ambrose went down in history as a just and pious man, to the point of becoming the patron saint of Milan. Citizens of Milan still celebrate the saint on the 7th of December, the day he was elected bishop in the year 374 CE.
The structure of the Basilica, Saint Ambrose’s seat, was consecrated around 385 CE, but today we inherit very few remains of the original building. The entrance to the Basilica is free of charge. Only inside is required a small fee if visitors are interested in visiting “The Treasure of St. Ambrose” exhibition.
As we enter the inner court, it is immediately clear how the church has been shaped over time, where bricks, marble, pieces of pillars and other blocks have been used alternately to rebuild the structure. Initially, the basilica consisted of three aisles, and despite the many changes, the church still preserved the rectangular plan belonging to its original form in the early Christian period.
After its construction, the basilica immediately became an important centre due to the deposition of the holy remains of Saints Protasius and Gervasius, highly revered figures of the time. Subsequently, after he died in 397 CE, Ambrose was also buried in the church, and today the remains of the three saints rest under the altar inside the basilica. After descending the stairs and accessing a small crypt behind the altar, the corpses are still visible, adorned with regal clothes and religious objects.
The church offers a unique blend of various styles, as evidenced by the numerous alterations and examples of materials used in its reconstruction.
Inside the basilica, you can also admire a splendid example of a Roman marble sarcophagus called ‘of Silicone’, which belonged to the general under Emperor Theodosius. This unique piece, well embedded in a mediaeval carved stone structure, is, in fact, datable to the earliest origins of the basilica, making it one of the few original examples of the building and an excellent piece of early Christian art. Also, as a great reminder of its Roman origin, on the left side of the building still lies the base of one of the many marble columns that once supported the entire structure.
Before leaving for the next stop, a curious Corinthian capital catches our attention near the entrance outside the basilica in St. Ambrose’s Square. Curiously, it is possible to distinguish two holes carved in the white marble. These are said to be the signs of the devil’s horns, who struck the column out of frustration after many attempts to induce St. Ambrose to sin.