San Nazaro Treasure, Sant’Ambrogio Collection, Milan Diocesan Museum

In 2007 the Diocesan Museum Carlo Maria Martini wanted to create a precious showcase, designed by the architect Antonio Piva and built by the Sandro Goppion Museotechnical Laboratory, dedicated to hosting the works originally coming from the basilica of the Holy Apostles and Nazaro Maggiore: the ancient Basilica Apostolorum commissioned by Ambrogio in the 4th century.

This nucleus of ancient masterpieces, now in storage at the Museum, is made up of the silver capsule called S. Nazaro and of the Manlia Dedalia reliquary, both dated to the mid-fourth century and dating back to the commission of Ambrogio himself. In addition to these two liturgical containers adorned with Limoges enamels, precious witnesses of the Mediolanian faith in the XII-XIII century.

The shining quality of the works reveals not only their great historical value, but also an extraordinary artistic perfection and a symbolic content of unexpected depth linked to the feeling of faith of those who had ordered, produced and destined them for the sacred function.

The tour itinerary opens with a nucleus of works related to the history of the Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio or the life of Sant’Ambrogio, bishop of Milan (374 – 397), including:

The silver chapel of San Nazaro
Engraver from the middle of the 4th century AD Capsella di San Nazaro Embossed silver with gilding, 20.5 x 20.5 x 20.6 cm
The silver chapel of San Nazaro, a 4th century reliquary which according to tradition was used by Ambrogio on his return from a trip to Rome, to contain the relics with which he consecrated the Basilica Apostolorum (now San Nazaro in Brolo), where it was found by Carlo Borromeo in 1578. The display case has the dimensions of a cube of about 20 cm each side, with embossed scenes embossed on all four sides and on the lid in worked silver foil. They are represented: Christ announces the new doctrine to the Apostles, Judgment of Solomon, Judgment of Joseph, Three Jews in the furnace saved by an angel, Madonna and Child enthroned among angelic hosts. The style of the figures is classic, comparable to the Greek bas-reliefs, and shows a portrait of a young emperor, identified with Honorius, son of Theodosius.

The capsule, dated in the mid-4th century, was used by Ambrose to contain the relics of some Apostles sent from Rome to consecrate the Basilica Apostolorum(the current basilica of the Holy Apostles and Nazaro Maggiore) founded by the same bishop. It was found in 1578 under the main altar of the basilica by San Carlo Borromeo and the following year it was again walled up in the church. It will be definitively found in 1894; deposited in 1964 in the Treasury of the Duomo of Milan, it passes to the Diocesan Museum Carlo Maria Martini in 2004. The silver capsule is decorated with embossed reliefs of the highest quality, whose iconography is still partly to be clarified: on the front the Madonna is depicted enthroned with the Child and two offerers who offer them empty plates. On the right side there is the Judgment of Solomon, while on the opposite side there appears a scene of Judgment variously interpreted, like Joseph who judges his brothersor as the Judgment of two Roman martyrs, or even as Daniel who judges the old men who threatened Susanna. On the last side depicts four young standalone, interpreted as the Three Jews saved by the angel in the furnace, or as carried away by the Angel Magi to Herod or even as pastors receiving the announcement of the birth of Jesus. Finally the cover depicts Christ enthroned among the apostles with amphorae and baskets at his feet in memory of the miracles of the Wedding at Cana and the multiplication of the loaves, with explicit reference to the common theme of the revelation of Christ.

Sant’Ambrogio litter (4th century)
Late antique workshop Second half of the 4th century AD Manlia Dedalia’s reliquary Silver plate engraved with gilding, 6.8 x 7.7 cm
Sant’Ambrogio litter (4th century), that is the catafalque where, according to tradition, the saint’s remains were laid during the funeral;

The reliquary, coming from the Milanese basilica of the Holy Apostles and Nazaro Maggiore, came to light in 1578 during the dismantling of the main altar of the basilica, inside the silver box today called Capsella di San Nazaro. The spherical container is made up of two equal parts, made of a thick embossed silver plate. The two halves are joined by a hinge and close interlocking, fixed with a bayonet system. The decoration, very sober, is limited to the poles of the two hemispheres. At the center of each of them is a chrismonaround which is the Latin inscription: Dedalia vivas on the lower valve; in Christ on the top. The probable primary function of the object, given the considerable degree of wear, is that it has long belonged as a personal reliquary to Manlia Dedalia, a rich contemporary aristocrat of Ambrose who dedicated himself to virginal and consecrated life. From a certain moment onwards reliquary and relic stop being his property and are placed under the main altar of the basilica Apostolorum.

Sacred dove-shaped vase
Bottega limosina, Milanese workshop (?) End of the second decade of the thirteenth century; inserts of the eighteenth century Eucharistic dove Champlevés enamels on sheets of gilded copper, metal (brass?), 16.3 x 6.5 x 15.9 cm
This splendid object, a sacred dove-shaped vase, alluding to the representation of the Holy Spirit, was born with the function of collecting consecrated hosts. The head and the body are formed by two shaped copper plates, connected, gilded and completed by thin incisions; on the back there is a cavity, closed by a lid, in which the hosts were inserted. The wings and tail are in champlevé enamel. The use of objects of this type, already witnessed with certainty around the year 1000, appears more widespread during the XII century and culminates in the beginning of the XIII, following the promulgation of the doctrine of transubstantiation by Innocenzo III. Coming from the basilica of San Nazaro, where it was suspended above the altar of San Pietro as attested by a document from 1828; deposited in 1964 in the Treasury of the Milan Cathedral, it passes to the Diocesan Museum Carlo Maria Martini in 2007.

The fragments of the wooden shutters of the main portal of the first Basilica of Sant’Ambrogio, dating back to the IV – VI century;
The clipeus with the blessing bust of Sant’Ambrogio (10th century), in polychrome stucco, from a Lombard workshop;
Wooden stalls (15th century), from the Sant’Ambrogio choir;
Madonna nursing the Child, (first quarter of the 16th century), detached fresco, by Bernardino Luini
Pie donne (first quarter of the 16th century), detached fresco, by an anonymous Lombard painter;
Jesus Christ carrying the cross (first quarter of the 16th century), detached fresco, attributed to Andrea Solario.

Diocesan Museum of Milan
The Diocesan Museum of Milan was born in 2001 on the initiative of the Archdiocese of Milan with the aim of protecting, enhancing and making known the artistic treasures of the diocese in the context of the spiritual context that inspired them. From the following year it is the scene of the initiative A masterpiece for Milan.

The Diocesan Museum is located in the setting of the cloisters of Sant’Eustorgio, integral part of one of the most antique monumental complexes of Milan, built from the joined units of the basilica and the Dominican convent, a thriving centre in the course of the centuries in an important area for the history of Milanese Christianity.

The permanent collection is constituted of over seven hundred works of art that span the period going from the 4th to the 21st century. Within the Archbishop’s Painting Gallery are the collections from the Milanese archbishops (part of the Monti, Visconti, Riccardi collection and the complete collection of Erba Odescalchi). In addition to the paintings coming from the churches of the Diocese, the Museum houses an important group of works of liturgical furnishing. Completing the collection is the section dedicated to Gold Leaf panel paintings (works primarily from the sphere of Tuscany of the 14th and 15th centuries, collected by Prof. Alberto Crespi and donated to the Museum), and sculptures and paintings coming from the collection of Caterina Marcenaro. Lastly, around a first nucleus of sculpted works by Lucio Fontana, there are many works from the 20th and 21st centuries, which declare a growing interest that the Museum has for contemporary works of art.