Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio

Piazza Sant'Ambrogio, 29. (Open Map)


A building rich in history and spirituality, a casket of sacred art, the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio represents, with the Cathedral, the focal point of Milan’s religious life.
The Basilica is surrounded by the devotion of the people, and it has always been a destination for pilgrims and visitors.
The superb portico, a cloister that precedes the entrance into the church itself, comprises columns with sculpted capitals. It provides an introduction to the intensely meditative atmosphere of the Basilica.
The façade has the typical Lombard Romanesque triangular pediment, and it consists of two orders, the lower of which in continuous with the portico. The Basilica has two belltowers: the oldest is the one on the right, known as the “Torre dei Monaci” (Monks’ tower) or the “old tower”, dating back to the 9th century; the tower on the left is called the Torre dei Canonici (priests’ tower), and this is in Lombard style, dating to 1128.
The church is dedicated to Ambrose, bishop of Milan. It is a superb example of Lombard Romanesque architecture. First built from 379 to 386, it was then a typically Palaeochristian structure. At that time Ambrose had named it “Basilica Martyrum.”
The building was radically modified in the Middle Ages, and today it comprises three naves. The ceiling has a ribbed vault, with columns that transfer the weight of the roof to the foundations.
The lateral naves present a great deal of art and history, with chapels containing extensive decoration, both on the vaults and the walls.
But visitors are inevitably drawn to the focal point of the Basilica, the Ciborium, a decorative canopy with Byzantine Lombard stucco work, supported by four Ancient Roman columns. The canopy highlights the “Golden Altar” underneath, a masterpiece of Carolingian goldwork.
This remarkable altar was made by Volvinio, and it was donated to the church in 830 by archbishop Angilberto II. The altar is shaped in the form of a sarcophagus. On the front, it depicts episodes from the life of Christ, and on the sides, the life of Saint Ambrose. It was in fact a cladding for a porphyry sarcophagus containing the bodies of Saints Ambrose, Gervasio and Protasio.
Ambrose was Roman prefect for northern Italy, and he was given the task of quelling the public unrest surrounding the election of the new bishop of Milan. It was on this occasion that the people, after having listened to his words, acclaimed him as the new representative of the Church in Milan. Initially, Ambrose did not want to accept the post, but the Emperor encouraged him to go ahead and so he became bishop of the city.
Don’t miss the superb Golden Altar by Volvinio. In addition, there are extensive frescoes in the seventh chapel at the end of the right nave, which leads into the Chapel of San Vittore in Ciel d'Oro.
In the apse, the large mosaic depicts the Savour between Saints Gervasio and Protasio.
In the left-hand section of the nave, there is a fine Late-Roman sarcophagus, known as the Stilicone sarcophagus, now part of a Mediaeval pulpit.
In the crypt, there is a large container in bronze and crystal glass, containing the remains of Saints Ambrose, Protasio and Gervasio.