Milan – The Basilica of Saint Eustorgio

One of the Early Christians Basilicas of the city of Milan

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The Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio (originally named Basilica Trium Magorum in early Christian times) is a Catholic basilica situated in the square of the same name in Milan, near Porta Ticinese. Originally dedicated to Eustorgio of Milan, it was constructed during the late Roman Empire period when the Roman city of Mediolanum (now Milan) was the capital of the Western Roman Empire (a role which it held from 286 to 402). It is one of the paleochristian basilicas of Milan.

The basilica was likely founded around the year 344. According to tradition, Sant’Eustorgio received an enormous stone sarcophagus containing the relics of the Magi directly from the Emperor Constantine I as a gift, which is where the basilica’s original early Christian name derives from, originating from the Basilica of Santa Sofia in Constantinople (where they had been buried several decades earlier by Empress Saint Helena, who had found them during her pilgrimage to the Holy Land).

The current façade of the basilica, whose original design dates back to the 12th century, is the result of a neoromanesque restoration carried out by engineer Giovanni Brocca between May 1864 and August 1865.
In the right transept of the basilica is an ancient Roman sarcophagus which, according to tradition, contained the remains of the Three Magi which Eustorgio transported from Constantinople to the Basilica of Santa Tecla. The relics, which were stolen during the sack by Frederick Barbarossa’s troops in 1162, were partially returned in 1904 and are kept in the reliquary placed above the altar of the Magi chapel. Also of note are the Visconti Chapel and the Portinari Chapel, while the works of art present in the Basilica of Sant’Eustorgio that have particular artistic value are the Passion altarpiece, the Gaspare Visconti ark, the Saint Peter Martyr ark, the funerary monument to Giacomo Brivio, the funerary monument to Pietro Torelli, and the funerary monument of Stefano and Valentina Visconti.

From the 13th century, the basilica became the main seat of the Dominican Order in Milan.
The façade has the typical gable shape, with protruding arches below the upper cornice, three portals each topped by a mosaic lunette, and a two-light window with the central entrance flanked by two single-light windows. On the left corner, adjacent to the façade of the Dominican convent, is the pulpit from which the inquisitor Pietro Martire preached.

On the southern side of the basilica, the apses of the Gentile chapels built between the 14th and 15th centuries are visible (see below), restored between 1864 and 1872 by architect Enrico Terzaghi, who removed the superstructures accumulated between the 17th and 18th centuries. A valuable source of first-hand information on the restoration of the basilica is the chronicle written by the priest Paolo Rotta, who followed all the stages of the intervention together with engineer Andrea Pirovano Visconti: both will be protagonists, a few years later, of the rescue of the church of San Vincenzo in Prato.

The bell tower, located at the rear of the church, was built between 1297 and 1309 in the typical Lombard style of bricks and stone blocks. Standing at 75 metres high, it houses a concert of six bells. On the top, instead of the usual cross, there is an eight-pointed star, symbol of the star that guided the Magi to Bethlehem. The bell tower hosted the first public clock in Italy.

The interior of the basilica, from the main entrance to the apse, measures 70 metres in length and is divided into three naves without partition walls, topped by cross vaults with cylindrical cords. The width, excluding the chapels, is 24 metres. There are seven pairs of bundle-pillars, five of which are composed heterogeneously with alternate pairs of semicolumns and pilasters.

The Passion altarpiece decorates the main altar, commissioned at the end of the 14th century by Gian Galeazzo Visconti and made by several sculptors, including Jacopino da Tradate. The marble polyptych is composed of nine relief-carved panels. The altarpiece is crowned with statues of saints and spires.
At the end of the basilica is the grand chapel built between 1462 and 1468 at the behest of the Florentine Pigello Portinari, agent of the Medicean Bank in Milan, in honour of Saint Peter Martyr, a Dominican preacher killed by a heretic in 1252. Pigello himself was buried here in 1468.

The chapel, with a central plan and composed of two square-plan rooms surmounted by domes, is the most evident testimony to the application of Florentine-style architecture in 15th-century Milan. The project and sculptural decorations remain difficult to attribute, while the cycle of frescoes, with episodes from the life of the Saint and the Virgin, is a masterpiece by Vincenzo Foppa. The cycle includes the Annunciation (front wall), the Assumption of the Virgin (entrance wall), the Miracle of the Healed Foot and the Martyrdom of Saint Peter Martyr (left wall), the Miracle of the Cloud and the Miracle of the False Madonna (right wall).
In the pendentives, within four oculi, are depicted the four Church Fathers: Saint Gregory the Great, Saint Jerome, Saint Ambrose, and Saint Augustine.
On the altar, one can see the portrait of the patron Pigello Portinari, kneeling before Saint Peter Martyr.
At the entrance of the chapel, the two large bronze candlesticks made in 1653 by Garavaglia are kept in their original location.

At the centre of the Portinari Chapel is the famous Ark of Saint Peter Martyr, a masterpiece by Giovanni di Balduccio, from the school of Giovanni Pisano, commissioned by the Dominicans to house the saint’s remains. The authorship of the work is confirmed by the inscription placed on the sarcophagus: “MAGISTER IOANNES BALDUCII DE PISIS SCULPSIT HANC ARCAM ANNO DOMINI MCCCXXXVIIII” (“Master Giovanni di Balduccio da Pisa sculpted this ark in the year of the Lord 1339”).
The Carrara marble sarcophagus consists of a rectangular box with a truncated pyramid lid on which a spire tabernacle is placed, surmounting the full-round statues of seated Mary, Saint Dominic, and Saint Peter Martyr. It is supported by eight red Verona marble pillars, against which are eight statues representing the cardinal (front left: Justice, Temperance, Fortitude, and Prudence) and theological virtues (rear left: Obedience, Hope, Faith, and Charity). Above these, the panels surrounding the sarcophagus depict, from left: the Funeral of the Saint, the Canonization of the Saint, the Miracle of the Ship, the Translation of the Saint’s Body, the Miracle of the Mute, the Miracle of the Cloud, the Healing of the Sick and the Epileptic, and the Murder of the Saint.