If you decide to visit Milan, and you happen to be a Christian, and even better a Catholic – and for some odd reason you like beauty, here is a good way of spending one day of your holiday. Just walk around and visit churches.
I can’t find solid data on how many churches are there exactly in Milan, but between parish churches, basilicas, sanctuaries, monasteries and chapels, there are easily 100+.
They date back from early Christianity to more recent structures – but the sheer quantity of art, styles and architectures is overwhelming. In the midst of a busy, modern and cosmopolitan city, you can find a place of peace and beauty almost at every corner.
You can look at churches purely from an aesthetic point of you – you don’t need to be a believer to appreciate beauty and art. You can also walk in and just enjoy their peace.
I remember meeting a Hindu young man in London who was struggling with atheism and spirituality. He told me that even though his background was Hindu, the only place he could find peace in London was its beautiful churches. He would walk in and sit down, and feel an atmosphere of peace invade him. I was fortunate to be there at that moment to talk to him about the Spirit of God, and the dwelling presence.
One concept I have learned to appreciate, is the onion-like nature of reality. In most things, there are layers – and you can stop at the superficial and most evident layer, or dig deeper. And there is almost no end to the layers you can peel off.
Similarly, you can stop at the external beauty of a church; or, you can dig into its history, and why certain saints are there, and why certain styles are there. You can then explore the ritual that takes place in that church, and how it is organized. You can then decide to use that church, insofar as you are a believer, and pause to pray – and the unique environment around you will focus your prayer somewhat. You can then focus on the altar, and what happens there, and what it means; and you can then enter the deepest possible connection between your inner spirit and the Spirit of God. And once you get there, there is no end to the exploration the depths of God.
I will briefly mention two churches that I have recently explored – and suggest a few more that are particularly known and beautiful.
The first one is the Duomo of course. It’s the landmark of Milan, one of the most beautiful gothic cathedrals, stunning from all perspectives.
When you walk inside the Duomo, it’s like walking into a forest of large pillars, with a great feeling of space, air and spirituality. The Duomo is a great place to pray, go to confession and hear Mass. Despite the fact that I lived in Milan for many years in the past, and I have been to the Duomo countless times, only recently have I learned that one of the four nails of the Holy Cross is preserved at the Duomo in Milan. If you look up above the main altar, in the apse, you can see a small cross with a red light. Inside that cross is kept the nail that pierced our Lord, and was collected together with the other nails by Emperor Constantine the Great. Once a year, the bishop of Milan collects the nail and presents it to the people on the Feast of the Holy Cross.
Realizing that I was at the presence of a great relic, I started searching for the other three Holy Nails, and realized that one is very close to Milan, in the neighbouring town of Monza. I will try and check it out. The other two are in Rome and in Val d’Elsa (Tuscany) respectively.
The ancient Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, the patron saint of Milan, is also incredibly beautiful and second in importance after the Duomo. It was built at the end of the IV century, and further developed over time. It’s huge and absolutely spectacular.
Among the other must-see churches in Milan, there is of course the Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie, where Leonardo’s famous Last Supper mural painting is preserved. It’s a stunning church from the Milanese Renaissance.
Not far from it, you can visit the church of St. Maurice in Major Monastery, also called the “Sistine Chapel” of Milan – built upon a far more ancient church, it became the house of a female monastic order, and also includes an archaeological museum. It’s completely covered in frescos.
The Basilica di Sant’Eustorgio and the Basilica di San Lorenzo are also remarkable churches to visit in the heart of Milan. Check them out.
One amazing church I basically stumbled upon using Google Maps is the church of St Bernardino and the Ossuary, also called the Church of Bones. It’s a very ancient church that was built alongside a cemetery, and the bones were gathered over time and added to the walls to become a place of devotion. It’s one of the most unique and unusual churches you may see, with a great spiritual atmosphere.
I discovered a wonderful website where you can take a virtual tour of these churches and others, just so you can get a taste – you can find it here. Of course, it’s much better if you see them in person next time you come to Milan.