While Rome is the political capital of Italy and Assisi is considered the country’s spiritual heart, Milan is known as Italy’s commercial hub. While the capital of Lombardy’s worldly atmosphere of business and fashion dealings doesn’t necessarily bring to mind spirituality, Milan has, perhaps surprisingly, a long religious tradition.
Few dioceses around the world can boast the presence of two of the four Latin Fathers and Doctors of the Church: St. Ambrose and St. Augustine. Saint Ambrose served as Milan’s archbishop in the fourth century and was one of the most influential ecclesiastical figures of the entire patristic period.
Cardinals and Saints
Without a doubt, his most famous disciple was St. Augustine of Hippo who was in Milan studying. Intrigued by the oratorical skills of St. Ambrose, he converted to Christianity after listening to his sermons. With his mother, St. Monica, present, Augustine was baptized by St. Ambrose in the cathedral on Easter Vigil in 387. He wrote about his conversion in his most famous work, Confessions.
Another notable archbishops who sat on Milan’s episcopal throne includes Saint Charles Borromeo in the sixteenth century. In the last century, Popes Pius XI and Saint Pope Paul VI left their episcopal sees in Milan after being elected to the throne of St. Peter in Rome.
Today the Archdiocese of Milan is still a Catholic powerhouse. It is the largest diocese in Europe, and has more priests than any other diocese in the world.
The Ambrosian Rite
Another curious Catholic fact, is that Milan is one of the few local churches in the western Catholic world that has its own historic liturgical rite: the Ambrosian Rite. As opposed to the common Roman rite celebrated virtually everywhere in the western Catholic Church, Milan’s Ambrosian Rite is still used in the greater part of the Milan Archdiocese and neighboring areas.
At the heart of Milan’s Catholic Church is its cathedral, known as the Duomo in Italian. With its characteristic soaring pinnacles and spires pointing heavenward, the Gothic cathedral is instantly recognized the world over. The church took nearly six centuries to complete and is the fifth largest church in the world. It can seat up to 40,000 people comfortably (of course in non-pandemic times). The vast interior, though notably dark, is replete with sarcophagi, decorated chapels, altars, statues, and numerous works of art.
St. Charles Borromeo
Near the choir is the entrance to the crypt leading down to the tomb of St. Charles Borromeo (1538 – 1584). From a notable Milanese family, he was archbishop of Milan from 1564 to 1584. He is noted for having played a major role in the Counter-Reformation – the Catholic Church’s response to the Protestant Reformation launched after the Council of Trent. He was responsible for significant reforms in the Catholic Church including the creation of the modern seminary. His feast day is on November 4.
For a small fee, visitors can see the Tesoro del Duomo, or Cathedral Treasury, displaying a large collection of medieval art. Also in the crypt is a fourth-century Paleo Christian Baptistery as well as remains of earlier cathedrals. This is very likely the site where St. Ambrose baptized St. Augustine. It is also possible to climb to the roof, for a fee, for a magnificent view of the city of Milan.
The Duomo’s combination as a place of worship, history, as well as its architecture and artwork make it a spiritual and cultural treasure.
A five-minute walk from the cathedral is the Biblioteca Ambrosiana, or the Ambrosian Library. One of the great repositories of European culture, the library was founded by Cardinal Federico Borromeo (1564-1631). The collection boasts more than 30,000 manuscripts and includes a 5th-century illustrated Iliad, early editions of Dante’s Divine Comedy (1353), and the Muratorian Canon (170 AD) – the earliest example of an authoritative list of biblical books. It contains twelve manuscripts of Leonardo da Vinci, as well as some 12,000 drawings by artists from the 14th through the 19th centuries.
A kilometer away, on the other side of Milan’s Catholic University of Sacro Cuore, is an important church housing remains of Milan’s patron saint, St. Ambrose, in the crypt. Noted for its rich medieval architecture and religious treasures, the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio church was consecrated by St. Ambrose himself in 387 AD. Rebuilt in the 11th century, it became the model for all Romanesque churches throughout Lombardy.
Lastly, a pilgrimage to Milan would not be complete without a visit to Santa Maria delle Grazie to see one of the world’s most recognizable paintings: The Last Supper (1495-97). Today a museum and UNESCO World Heritage Site, it was originally built as a church and Dominican convent by the Duke of Milan, Francesco I Sforza, in the fifteenth century. While Leonardo da Vinci’s famous mural adorns an entire wall in the refectory of the convent, visitors should not overlook a miraculous image of Our Lady credited for having protected Milan against numerous plagues. (Renewed prayers here in our own day would perhaps be beneficial.) Visits must be reserved online in advance at: https://cenacolovinciano.org/en/
The aforementioned churches comprise the must-see sites in Milan, though there are numerous others worthy of visiting. Time permitting, other churches include the Church of San Lorenzo Maggiore. Built in the fourth century AD, San Lorenzo Maggiore is Milan’s oldest church. Adorned with mosaics that seem more befitting of one of Ravenna’s Byzantine churches, San Lorenzo recalls the era when Milan was the capital of the Western Roman Empire.
Also noteworthy church in Milan is the Church of San Satiro. Built in 876 AD over the house of St. Satyrus, the brother of St. Ambrose, it became an important pilgrimage site in the High Middle Ages due to a miraculous image of the Virgin Mary. Its architecture style was designed by the Renaissance artist and architect, Bramante (1444-1514), and is noted for its classical sense of proportion and perspective.
Finally, some popular non-religious sites in Milan include: Milan’s Galleria, adjacent to the Duomo, known for its top brand fashion stores; Palazzo reale, also near the Duomo; the Sforzesco Castle; and La Scala Theatre, one of the most renowned opera houses in the world.