Milan: San Lorenzo Maggiore

The San Lorenzo Maggiore.

The San Lorenzo Maggiore.

The San Lorenzo is one of the oldest churches in Milan, and certainly one of the most interesting. It is a centrally planned church, and has often been compared to the San Vitale in Ravenna because of its shape. It is more than a century older though. It pays to walk around the San Lorenzo and admire it from all sides. Behind the church is a lovely green park called the Parco delle Basiliche, where on a hot summer day one can find many people relaxing on the grass. The park is a good spot to observe the church’s peculiar plan. It looks like a bundle of chapels and towers, attached to a central building. And that is exactly what the San Lorenzo is.

Early history

Because of a lack of historical records, not much is known about the early history of the church. An older, now mostly discredited theory claims that the San Lorenzo was built during the reign of the emperor Constantius II (350-361), one of the sons of Constantine the Great. The emperor had Arian sympathies, and Milan had an Arian bishop named Auxentius between 355 and 374. According to this theory, the San Lorenzo was actually the “Basilica Portiana”, the church of the Arians in Milan. Auxentius was succeeded by the much more famous Ambrosius (or Saint Ambrose), one of the four original Doctors of the Church and a staunch opponent of Arianism. This doctrine, which denied the consubstantiality of God and Jesus, had already been denounced as heresy at Nicaea in 325, and during Ambrosius’ episcopate (374-397), it was denounced again at Constantinople in 381. Ambrosius firmly opposed the Arians in Milan, and the Basilica Portiana would have been rededicated to Orthodoxy by him or by one of his successors.

The San Lorenzo, seen from the Parco delle Basiliche.

The death of Saint Lawrence (San Lorenzo); lunette above the main entrance.

The death of Saint Lawrence (San Lorenzo); lunette above the main entrance.

While this theory is not implausible and no other candidate for the Basilica Portiana has ever been identified, the theory is problematic nonetheless because archaeological evidence gathered in the early 2000s indicates that the church is somewhat younger. Research has shown that it was built in the late fourth or early fifth century. That means that construction would have started during the reign of the staunchly Orthodox emperor Theodosius I (379-395) or that of his son and successor Honorius (395-423) and his most important general and guardian, Flavius Stilicho. Since Honorius decided to move the seat of the imperial court from Milan to Ravenna in 402, the decision to build the San Lorenzo was probably taken before that date.

Because of its unusual shape – a centrally planned building instead of a classical basilica – and the fact that materials from the nearby amphitheatre were reused for constructing the new church, it is certain that the San Lorenzo was built under imperial patronage. The imperial palace in Milan was just to the north of the San Lorenzo, and remains of it can still be seen today in the Via Brisa. The San Lorenzo was built on an artificial hill just outside Milan’s Roman city walls, on the Via Ticinensis, the road that led from Milan to Pavia (Ticinum in Latin). We do not know when the church was completed and consecrated, nor do we know whether it was dedicated to San Lorenzo – the Roman deacon who was roasted on a gridiron in 258 – from the start. This dedication is only certain from the year 590.

Later history

Statue of Constantine the Great in the courtyard.

Statue of Constantine the Great in the courtyard.

In 569, Milan was conquered by a Germanic tribe called the Longobards or Lombards, who gave their name to the region of which Milan would become the capital: Lombardy. The Longobards were in turn defeated by the Franks of Charlemagne, who took Milan in 774. The Frankish king had his daughter Gisela baptised in the San Lorenzo in 781, which constitutes evidence that the church was still of great importance. There is evidence of renovations of the church under both the Lombard kings and the Carolingians. Other renovations took place in the tenth century, presumably when the Holy Roman Emperors Otto I (962-973) and Otto II (973-983) controlled large parts of Italy. These renovations may have involved strengthening the famous dome of the church.

The eleventh and twelfth century were rife with disaster for the San Lorenzo. A great fire seriously damaged the church in 1071, and again in 1075, 1103 and 1124. In 1162, the German emperor Frederick Barbarossa captured and sacked Milan and caused the population to flee, but fortunately for the Milanese, the San Lorenzo was spared. Milan was rebuilt by returning refugees, and the San Lorenzo was incorporated into the city when the city walls were moved further south in 1167. This of course did nothing to stop a terrible earthquake in 1175, and the San Lorenzo was severely damaged yet again. The many disasters necessitated multiple renovation projects, the last of which was completed only in 1255.

After more than three centuries of quiet, disaster struck again in June 1573, when the famous dome of the church collapsed. The architect Martino Bassi (1542-1591) was hired by the archbishop of Milan, Carlo Borromeo, to build a new Baroque-style dome. This was the start of a long and painful process. The project got off to a flying start in 1574, but construction was halted in 1576-1577 because of the plague. Borromeo died in 1584 at the tender age of 46, and Bassi followed him to the grave in 1591 without having completed the new dome.

The 'Colonne'.

The ‘Colonne’.

Financial means were always lacking, but fortunately God himself seems to have decided to intervene (or so the Catholics want us to believe). On 29 June 1585, a sick woman was miraculously cured when an icon known as the Madonna del Latte was shown to her on the nearby Piazza della Vetra. Afterwards, offerings from worshippers started pouring in and this provided a solid financial basis for continuing the rebuilding project. Nevertheless, the new dome was only completed in 1619. The Madonna del Latte was moved to the San Lorenzo’s high altar in 1626 by Federico Borromeo, Carlo Borromeo’s cousin and archbishop of Milan from 1595 until 1631.

The church was given a new facade in 1894. It is the work of the architect Cesare Nava (1861-1933). A statue of Constantine the Great was placed on the courtyard in front of the church in the 1930s (see the image above). This is of course a reference to the famous “Edict of Milan” of 313, an agreement between the emperors Constantine and Licinius which gave the Christian religion an official status in the Empire.[1] The statue is a copy of one that can be found in the San Giovanni in Laterano in Rome. The San Lorenzo is sometimes called “San Lorenzo alle Colonne”. This refers to the sixteen Corinthian columns that have been set up on the west side of the courtyard (see the image above). The origin of the columns is unknown. They may have been taken from public baths, from a temple or from a villa. The columns were moved to their current location in the late fourth or early fifth century.

Interior of the church.

Interior of the church.


The San Lorenzo has been described as “a double-shelled tetraconch (the central core has four exedrae)” (Mauskopf Deliyannis 2010). There were four towers on the four corners of the central building. These are still there, although the current towers are medieval additions and at least one has been turned into a Romanesque campanile. The interior of the church is very sober nowadays, but it must have been decorated with marble and mosaics once. All of these are gone, possibly the result of the disasters that have hit this church since the eleventh century, combined with the Baroque makeover that the church received later. Traces of frescoes can be seen on the walls of the church, some in a very bad state. These frescoes seem to have been added during the renovations of the twelfth and thirteenth century, judging by the style. A pipe organ can be found on the face of the matronaeum, the gallery intended for those who did not want to or were not allowed to attend mass in the nave below.

The Last Supper.

The Last Supper.

The church also owns a fresco of the Last Supper, attributed to the obscure late fifteenth century painter Antonio della Corna. Della Corna was obviously inspired by Leonardo da Vinci’s famous mural in the refectory of the Santa Maria delle Grazie, also in Milan, but seems to have lacked Leonardo’s talent. And that is putting it mildly. To be frank, Della Corna’s work is simply ugly. The figures in the scene look clumsy, crude and rigid. The facial expressions are amateurish and Jesus’ halo looks like a beach ball… To add insult to injury, the fresco is badly damaged too.


The San Lorenzo has many chapels, some more interesting than others.


Fresco by Storer.

The chapel known as the Cappella di Sant’Ippolito was part of the original building. It was attached to the eastern part of the central building, so it was opposite the main entrance. The chapel was built on a Greek cross plan and is octagonal on the outside. Whatever its original function, it seems to have briefly served as a mausoleum for Milan’s archbishops, as archbishop Eusebius was interred here in 465. However, soon afterwards archbishop Laurentius began the construction of the chapel of Saint Sixtus (Cappella di San Sisto), which was completed before 511. It was specially built to house the tombs of Milan’s archbishops, although these are apparently no longer here. They may have been removed in 1608, when archbishop Federico Borromeo decided to transfer the church’s baptistery to this chapel. The chapel was later frescoed by the German painter Johann Christoph Storer (ca. 1620-1671). Storer is probably as unknown as Antonio della Corna, but his frescoes are certainly better.

The best part of the church is with a doubt the Cappella di Sant’Aquilino, which is to the south of the central building. You have to buy a ticket to enter it – if I recall correctly, you pay just two Euros – but it is certainly worth the money. The chapel is entered through a rectangular atrium. This used to be covered in mosaics, but unfortunately only traces of these remain. All that we see are a few feet of apostles – Judas is among them – and some heads of what are apparently the Sons of Jacob, i.e. the patriarchs of the twelve tribes of Israel. The blue background is beautiful, but the preserved sinopie – the rough sketches of the artist on the wall – only marginally allow us to reconstruct what the original mosaics would have looked like.

Three patriarchs of the tribes of Israel. The ones on the right are Simeon and Zebulon.

Three patriarchs of the tribes of Israel. The one on the left is Judah, the ones on the right are Simeon and Zebulon.

The Cappella di Sant’Aquilino is octagonal, with alternating semi-circular and rectangular niches. Research indicates that it was built around the same time as the main building, that is: between 390 and 430. Amazingly, the dome of the chapel is original and thus some 1.600 years old. The chapel was certainly not meant as a chapel originally, and there has been much speculation about its initial purpose. One possibility is that it was intended as a baptistery, but the only evidence for this theory seems to be that the chapel is octagonal, like for instance the contemporary Orthodox Baptistery in Ravenna.

It is much more plausible that the chapel’s original purpose was that of an imperial mausoleum for members of the Theodosian dynasty. One of the niches contains a huge sarcophagus dating from Late Antiquity. The chapel was sometimes referred to as the Capella Reginae, the chapel of the Queen, which was interpreted as a reference to Galla Placidia (ca. 388-450), Theodosius’ daughter and the emperor Honorius’ half-sister.[2] However, she was certainly not buried here, and not in Ravenna either.

Large sarcophagus in the chapel.

Large sarcophagus in the chapel.

The problem with establishing the original purpose of the chapel is simply a lack of sources, as with the early history of the San Lorenzo itself. We know that the chapel was dedicated to a Saint Genesius at a later date (this one or this one? Or are they one and the same?). It was not until 1581 that archbishop Carlo Borromeo decided to move the relics of one Saint Aquilinus to this chapel and rededicate it to him, making him a patron saint of Milan in the process. The sculptor Carlo Garavaglia (1617-1663) was later commissioned to make a beautiful altar for the chapel. According to tradition, Aquilinus was a German from Würzburg, known for his preaching against heretics. One of these reportedly killed him in 1015. Aquilinus remains a rather obscure saint, and nothing is known about his canonisation, which is strange, given that the year 1015 was not exactly in the Dark Ages anymore. Do not forget to look behind the altar, where there is a set of stairs going down to a chamber under the chapel where one can see the chapel’s foundations.

The chapel is most famous for its few surviving mosaics in the niches. One has survived the centuries and all the disasters that hit the San Lorenzo unscathed. It shows “Christ the Lawgiver” or “Christ the Teacher”, surrounded by his apostles, six on either side. Peter, Paul and Andrew are easily recognisable. Christ is depicted as a young man. He has a halo with the Christogram and is holding an opened scroll in his left hand. At his feet is a basket with seven more scrolls. Given that this is a mosaic dating to the late fourth or early fifth century, its cultural and historic value is immense.

Christ and the apostles.

Christ and the apostles.

The other mosaic is a bit of a puzzle, with most of the pieces missing. About half of the mosaic is gone, and it seems fair to conclude that this is the best part. The lower part shows a pastoral landscape with sheep and shepherds. Set against a golden sky was a chariot drawn by horses. Part of the horse mosaic is still there, and the sinopia shows the contours of wheels and a carriage.

Elijah or Christ-Sun?

Elijah or Christ-Sun?

One interpretation is that this is a scene from 2 Kings 2:11, which features the prophet Elijah, who is taken up to heaven:

“And it came to pass, as they still went on, and talked, that, behold, there appeared a chariot of fire, and horses of fire, and parted them both asunder; and Elijah went up by a whirlwind into heaven.” (AKJV)



Elijah is often depicted in Christian mosaics[3], so this is certainly a plausible interpretation. A different interpretation is that the scene shows Christ-Sun in his chariot, that is, an image of Christ based on originally pagan images of the solar god Sol, Sol Invictus or Apollo Helios. A similar scene can be found in the so-called “Tomb of the Julii” in the Vatican Necropolis, usually interpreted as a Christian tomb. There is no doubt that early Christians copied pagan imagery and used it for their own new religion. But whoever the figure in the chariot is – Elijah or Christ-Sun – the shepherd on the right seems to be quite impressed by what happens above him, terrified even…

Further reading


[1] Constantine did not end the persecution of Christians, a claim many travel guides erroneously make. Galerius should be credited for that. His Edict of Toleration formally ended the persecutions initiated by Diocletianus. It was issued in 311, two years before Constantine’s Edict.

[2] Her title was Augusta, or “empress”, not regina. The latter word seems to be a later invention.

[3] See for instance the Santa Prassede and Santa Maria in Domnica in Rome or the Sant’Apollinare in Classe in Ravenna. For Elijah in his fiery chariot, see the Santa Sabina in Rome or the Cappella degli Scrovegni in Padova.


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