Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan

Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan, consecrated 379, present structure c. 1080–99, nave rebuilt c. 1128–44; atrium, 9th century, left tower 1199 and late 19th century, right tower, 9th century.  A conversation with Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris

[0:00] [music]

Dr. Steven Zucker: [0:04] We’ve walked into the atrium of Sant’Ambrogio in Milan, this large rectangular space with an open center, with vaulted aisles surrounding it. At the far end is the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio itself.

Dr. Beth Harris: [0:18] If we look up, the capitals are carved with decorative and animal forms. As we look toward the church itself, we see what looks like [a] double-storied Roman triumphal arch. I really feel like I’m in an ancient space here in Milan; in fact, the most ancient Christian site here in Milan.

Dr. Zucker: [0:39] Atria are common in early Italian churches. They derive from ancient Roman architecture, specifically from domestic architecture. But the way that it’s set here, in front of the church, makes the entire space feel as if we’re crossing this threshold into this sacred environment.

Dr. Harris: [0:55] A sacred environment that still houses the relics of Saint Ambrose himself, the patron saint of Milan and the bishop of Milan.

[1:03] I’m transported back to the 3rd century, to the time when the ancient Roman emperor Diocletian divided the Roman Empire in order to help secure it, and created a new capital for the Roman empire here in Milan. This city becomes this very important capitol at the beginnings of Christianity and the end of the Roman empire.

Dr. Zucker: [1:25] Christianity was a young religion that was still working out which specific beliefs would be followed. Here we are, in a city that had become the new capital of the western Roman empire.

Dr. Harris: [1:37] Let’s go inside.

Dr. Zucker: [1:38] We’ve just walked into the basilica. That word is important because this church is based on the ancient Roman architecture type known as a basilica. They were built as large-scale civic buildings, and early Christians adopted this pagan architecture for a Christian context.

Dr. Harris: [1:57] Although this is an ancient site, one that dates back to the 4th century, to the time of Saint Ambrose, what we’re looking at dates to the later period of the 11th and 12th century, a period we call the Romanesque.

[2:11] When we think about the Romanesque style, we see many of the elements that we do in fact see in this church. We see rounded arches that remind us of ancient Roman architecture, hence the name Romanesque — like the Romans.

[2:25] Interestingly, we see an early use of the groin vault.

Dr. Zucker: [2:29] You can see the groin vaults, here divided by the precocious use of brick ribs that are then brought down on these large piers that alternate down the length of the nave and separate the central hallway, the central nave, from the side aisles.

Dr. Harris: [2:45] It feels dark, the way that we expect a Romanesque church to feel. This is a time when architects are experimenting with vaulting, trying to figure out how to carry the weight of a stone vault, and so the interior is dark. Very different from brightly illuminated stained glass spaces of later Gothic churches.

Dr. Zucker: [3:06] In fact, in this church, there is no clerestory. The light is coming in instead at the east and the west ends of the church, and also from small windows in the dome.

Dr. Harris: [3:15] If we look below the dome, we see a baldacchino, a ciborium. We see figures made out of stucco. Christ in the center, with Peter and Paul on either side. On the opposite side, the side facing the altar, is an image of Saint Ambrose.

Dr. Zucker: [3:31] One of the real treasures of this church can be found supporting the stone canopy. These are four large purple porphyry columns that probably date to the period of Saint Ambrose’s own life, so dating back to the 4th century.

Dr. Harris: [3:44] In the center, below the baldacchino is a magnificent altar with scenes from the life of Saint Ambrose and scenes from the life of Christ.

Dr. Zucker: [3:53] Made out of thin walls of gold and silver, with enamel work and gems and pearls. It’s just magnificent.

Dr. Harris: [4:00] There’s also a mosaic that shows Christ enthroned in the apse.

Dr. Zucker: [4:05] Here we are in a city that had become the new capital of the western Empire, that would remain an important center under the Lombards and Carolingian and Ottonian kings. This was one of the great religious sites in western Europe.

[4:18] [music]

Cite this page as: Dr. Steven Zucker and Dr. Beth Harris, "Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, Milan," in Smarthistory, May 4, 2023, accessed May 24, 2024,