Milan: Sant’Eustorgio

The Sant'Eustorgio.

The Sant’Eustorgio.

The church of Sant’Eustorgio can be found some 400 metres south of the San Lorenzo Maggiore. The church dates back to Late Antiquity and is named after the man who was bishop of Milan between 344 and 349, Saint Eustorgius. Also part of the complex is an interesting museum, which is made up of the former chapter house of the Dominican monastery, the former sacristy and several chapels. Here we find the highlight of the Sant’Eustorgio, the fifteenth century Portinari Chapel with the tomb of Saint Peter of Verona (also known as Saint Peter Martyr).


There can be no doubt that the basilica is old, very old, but the tales of its foundation are shrouded by legend. According to tradition, Eustorgius brought the relics of the Three Magi from Constantinople to Milan when suddenly and inexplicably the cart carrying the remains stopped in the middle of the road. The cart was just outside the city and every attempt to get it moving again failed. In the end, Eustorgius gave up and decided to build a church in the country to house the relics of the Magi. The story is probably fictional, but it is not impossible that the church was indeed founded in the fourth century, at the site of an ancient Roman cemetery. Parts of this cemetery were excavated in the 1950s and can be visited by tourists.

Altar of the Magi.

Altar of the Magi.

The Late Antique church was rebuilt in the Romanesque style in the eleventh century. When Milan was sacked by the army of Frederick Barbarossa in 1162, the emperor confiscated the relics and took them to Cologne. They were – partially – returned to the Sant’Eustorgio in 1903. Today, we can find the altarpiece and the sarcophagus of the Magi to the right of the high altar. The ornate altarpiece shows scenes from the lives of the three Kings and can be dated to 1347. The sarcophagus is actually a huge Late Roman sarcophagus, almost the size of a modest house. According to a leaflet provided by the church itself “the veneration of the Magi is particularly important to the Milanese who celebrate Epiphany[1] in the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio with special celebrations and a picturesque procession”. Note that the campanile of the church is not topped by a cross (as is usual), but by the Star of Bethlehem.

The church was given to the Dominican Order in the thirteenth century. In the following two centuries, wealthy Milanese families began building chapels in the right aisle. They commissioned artists to decorate these chapels and provide them with funerary monuments. Changes that were made in the Baroque period were reversed in the 1950s. Nowadays, the church has its original medieval – that is: thirteenth and fourteenth century – look again. The facade is not original: the church was provided with a new Neo-Romanesque facade in 1865.


Interior of the church.

Interior of the church.

Although the church leaflet uses words like “unique artistic masterpieces” and “rare beauty”, the interior of the Sant’Eustorgio is actually quite simple. One of the oldest works of art can be found in the nave: a painted crucifix which dates back to the late twelfth century and is clearly still medieval in style. The high altar was commissioned by Gian Galeazzo Visconti (1351-1402), who became the first Duke of Milan in 1395. Visconti was the arch enemy of Florence and can be seen as the bad guy (the prefect of Antioch) in one of the frescoes in the Brancacci Chapel in that city. The high altar, or at least the central panel showing the Crucifixion, is attributed to the Gothic sculptor Jacopino da Tradate. The tomb of Pietro Torelli in the Chapel of Saint Dominic – the second chapel on the right – is also attributed to Da Tradate.

Ceiling of the Visconti Chapel.

Ceiling of the Visconti Chapel.

Most frescoes in the church are faded, but I did enjoy those of the four Evangelists in the vault of the Torriani Chapel by Michelino da Besozzo (ca. 1370-1455). They were painted circa 1440. The Cappella Viscontea, commissioned by Matteo Visconti (1250-1322), also has frescoes of the four Evangelists. These are much older than those of Michelino and were painted by an unknown late thirteenth/early fourteenth century artist. In the picture included in this post, we can also see Saint George slaying the dragon.

Portinari Chapel

The Portinari Chapel.

The Portinari Chapel.

The Portinari Chapel is the best part of the church, but it cannot be visited for free. The chapel is part of the museum and you have to buy a 6 Euro ticket to see it (and if you want to take pictures, apparently another 3 Euros, which I faithfully did). The name of the architect responsible for the chapel is unknown. It was commissioned by Pigello Portinari (1421-1468). Portinari was a Florentine, an agent of the Medici Bank working in Milan. His name suggests he was a member of the same family as Dante’s muse, Beatrice Portinari (see Florence: Dante’s Church). Construction of the chapel started in 1462 and Pigello Portinari was buried here after his death in 1468.

However, Portinari did not intend the chapel to be just for himself. The Medici banker wanted it to house the tomb of Saint Peter of Verona, a Dominican martyr. Peter of Verona was a preacher and inquisitor who was involved in the struggles of the Church against a heretical sect known as the Cathars. He was murdered by a hired assassin in 1252 and canonised the next year by Pope Innocentius IV (1243-1254). Several churches in Italy are dedicated to him, for instance the San Pietro Martire on Murano, Venice. Peter’s body was taken to the Sant’Eustorgio and initially laid to rest in a simple tomb. It was not until 1336 that the Dominicans commissioned a splendid monument for him. Funds were provided by Azzone Visconti, Lord of Milan (1329-1339), and other wealthy Milanese. The Pisan artist Giovanni di Balduccio was hired to sculpt the tomb. Giovanni completed the job in 1339.

Close-up of the tomb.

Close-up of the tomb (miracle of the dumb man, miracle of the cloud, healing of the epileptic).

Fresco's by Vincenzo Foppa.

Fresco’s by Vincenzo Foppa.

For some reason, the monument was not installed in the Portinari Chapel until 1736. It was originally placed in the choir, and moved to its present location in 1875. The tomb itself is made of Carrara marble and is supported by pillars made of Verona red marble. Resting against the pillars are eight statues representing the Virtues. The reliefs on the tomb show scenes from the life of Peter of Verona. The level of detail is quite exceptional. The frescoes in the Portinari Chapel are the work of Vincenzo Foppa (ca. 1427-1515). They are also about Saint Peter’s life and show the four Doctors of the Church as well.

The information in this post is mostly based on leaflets provided by the church itself and on my Dorling Kindersley travel guide to Milan and the Lakes (2010).


[1] Or Three Kings’ Day (6 January). The name refers to the three Magi or Kings.


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