One Step Closer to Paradise : the Heavenly Frescoes at San Maurizio Church in Milan
Regardless of how long or short your stay in Milan is, there is one sight you absolutely must not miss. Without a shadow of a doubt, one of the most stunning discoveries in the city is to be found behind the inconspicuous-looking doors of the church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore just 15 minutes’ walk from the central Duomo cathedral. For the uninitiated, the likelihood is that you could easily walk past the grey-stoned façade of this modest-looking place of worship without there being a hint of what lies on the other side. Step through the hallowed entrance, and be prepared to be stunned into reverent silence.
Nothing can quite prepare you for the initial overwhelming effect of what is often named the “Sistine Chapel of Milan”, which is filled to the brim with an amazing number of Renaissance masterpieces. Breath-taking wall-to-wall frescoes are everywhere to be seen; a host of benevolent saints, cherubs and martyrs look down on you from every angle, and a series of highly decorated chapels flank the sides of the main church area. Looking heavenwards, even the galleries that run the whole length of the building are awash with paintings: as the old adage goes, it’s well and truly a sight for sore eyes.
THEY’VE GOT IT COVERED
Originally attached to the most important female Benedictine monastery in the city, decoration of the church of San Maurizio as it still stands now began all the way back in 1503, under the patronage of one Alessandro Bentivoglio and his wife Ippolita from the powerful Sforza family – and in fact you can have an admiring look at them when you are in front of the altar, as the two of them have been given pole position in the good company of the saints and angels surrounding them.
Most of the master strokes of this miraculous cycle of frescoes were commissioned to the highly talented Bernardino Luini, whose slightly less accomplished sons then continued his work in the church after his death. Influenced by Raphael and da Vinci, Luini even has the reputation for being “arguably the most thoroughly Leonardesque of the leonardeschi”. In any case, his genius is unchallenged, which you can witness first-hand and up close while looking at the astonishingly well-painted and emotive expressions of the figures he portrays.
I have long had an on-going fascination with the tortured stories of the oft-martyred female saints that appear so often in Italian churches, and San Maurizio beautifully illustrates them, in spades. Santa Lucia makes an appearance above, serenely showing us her plucked-out eyes, which had been horrifically pierced as a result of her conversion to Christianity. Saint Agatha, below, fares arguably as badly, with the cutting off of her breasts featuring in her virginal persecution.
“CUT OFF HER HEAD!”
The Chapel of Saint Catherine of Alexandria on the right hand side of the church is meanwhile devoted to the trials and tribulations of this upstanding soul. She, we learn, is always instantly recognisable due to the spiked wheel of torture ever at her stoic side. Incidentally, there’s a great tale to be told about the most likely real-life person depicted here who represents Catherine at the moment of her beheading – I’ll leave the scabrous story of the infamous Contessa di Challant for you to discover at our highly recommended private tour of the church…
Unbelievably, this hall of plenty, or indeed Hall of the Faithful as it is called, is only half of the picture. It would be easy to miss, but the altar is actually a partition which used to divide the congregation with those concealed on the other side of the wall. If you slip through a cleverly hidden doorway to the left you will find yourselves in Milan’s hidden crown jewel, the secluded Hall of Nuns. Martyrs in their own way, the generations of vestal virgins who lived out their lives at the monastery for centuries until its dissolution in the 1790s by Napoleon were forbidden to see or be seen by the outside world. The recorded choral music that plays inside the whole church today is an invisible, slightly ghostly reminder of how it must have sounded back in the days when the disembodied sounds of the sisters would have echoed through the walls from these confined quarters.
Arguably even more beautiful than the main hall, the sanctuary was further isolated in the sixteenth century by puritan Carlo Borromeo’s decision to block off the “pontile” grill completely, meaning that the cloistered nuns would have had to content themselves with the extraordinary artwork they had for wallpaper. Be sure not to miss the galleries here containing frescoes of Noah’s ark (complete with an unlikely pair of unicorns), a sighting of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden (where the serpent’s face is clearly that of a tell-tale female) and a pretty good rendition of an alternative Last Supper above the door at the far end of the hall, leading to an ancient bell tower which can also be visited by prior arrangement with your private guide.
This celestial building is less than ten minutes’ walk from the celebrated Last Supper at Santa Maria delle Grazie, and while there’s no doubting that it is a miracle that the latter is still standing, the former most certainly gives Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece a heck of a run for its money. Just like a visit to the Duomo cathedral, you will get a great deal of pleasure seeing the sights without any assistance, but for an unforgettable take on the details and behind-closed-doors tales of the history of this amazing site, I could not recommended a small group or private guided tour more highly. Miss this beautiful spectacle at your peril – it’s an absolute treasure.
Top tip : for a taste of heaven, look out for the occasional “Vespri Musicali” concerts that are scheduled during the year, featuring the ornate and valuable pipe organ by Gian Giacomo Antegnati.
Chiesa di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, 15 Corso Magenta. Free admission. Regular opening hours: Wednesday-Sunday 9:30-19:30pm, closed on Monday & Tuesday. For information about private guided visits, contact [email protected] for more details.
All photos by Nicola Collarile unless otherwise indicated.