Friday, May 29, 2020

The Paleo-Christian Basilica of St Simplician in Milan

On the Ambrosian calendar, today is the very ancient feast of a group of three martyrs called Sisinnius, Martyrius and Alexander. They were originally from Cappadocia in Asia Minor, but in the days of St Ambrose, came to Milan, then the de facto imperial capital. At that time, all of northern Italy belonged to the ecclesiastical province of Milan, and St Vigilius, the bishop of Trent, had asked his metropolitan for assistance in evangelizing his region. The mission was entrusted to the three Cappadocians, Sisinnius being ordained deacon, Martyrius a lector, and Alexander a porter. In the valley of Anaunia to the north of Trent, they were able to make a good number of converts, and build a church in one of the villages. (All the photos in this article are by Nicola de’ Grandi.)

The relics of St Sisinnius, Martyrius and Alexander in the basilica of St Simplician in Milan. 
Here, they were attacked by the local pagans on the day of a festival, and Sisinnius was beaten so badly that he died a few hours later. In the letter describing their martyrdom, St Vigilius notes that Martyrius was able to hide in a garden attached to the church, but he was unwilling to abandon the sacred place; when he was discovered and taken the next day, the pagans had to fix him to a stake in order to drag him away. Before they could get him to the idol before which they would have sought to compel him to offer sacrifice, he died from being dragged over the sharp stones on the route. Alexander was also taken, and having resisted all attempts to make him repudiate the Faith, he was thrown alive in the fire on which the bodies of the other two were being burned. As happened with many other martyrs, the faithful carefully gathered up the Saints’ ashes, and brought them to Vigilius, who later built a new church on the site of the martyrdom. On two different occasions, Vigilius sent relics of the martyrs to a fellow bishop, once to St Simplician, St Ambrose’s personal friend and later successor, and again to St John Chrysostom; the letters which accompanied them both survive. (Simplician, by the way, was the priest of Milan chosen to complete Ambrose’s instruction in the Faith when the latter, still a catechumen, was chosen bishop by popular acclamation. He outlived his famous student, even though he was older than him, but only by a few years.)

During his time as bishop of Milan, St Ambrose had built four basilicas at roughly the four cardinal points of the city, dedicated to the Apostles, the Prophets, the Martyrs and the Virgins, as a way of reinforcing the city’s Christian character and placing it under the protection of the Saints. When the relics of the martyrs Gervasius and Protasius were discovered, they were placed in the Basilica of the Martyrs on the west side of the city; St Ambrose then arranged for himself to be buried there with them, and the church has subsequently been renamed for him. The same happened with St Simplician, who placed the relics of the three martyrs of Anaunia in the basilica of the Virgins on the north side of the city, arranging for himself to be buried there, and the church is now renamed for him.
The relics of St Simplician in the same church.
As is almost always the case with such ancient churches, the building has undergone many transformations since its original construction. However, the basic structure of the chapel made to house the martyrs’ relics survives; recent archeological study has confirmed that it dates to the very late 4th or early 5th century, the period of Simplician’s episcopacy.
The basilica originally had only one nave, and a trussed wooden roof; the pilasters that divide it into three naves and the brick vaults of the ceiling were added later.
The external walls are also the originals of the paleochristian church, and although the upper part has been rebuilt, this is the only one of St Ambrose’s four basilicas which still stands at its original height, just over 72 feet. The pavement level of the church, however, has been raised by about 6 feet.
The modern façade was added in 1870, a very creditable reconstruction of the northern Italian Romanesque style.
External view of the south transept, a medieval rebuilding.
In the foreground, the chapel of the martyrs, which was originally detached from the main basilica; to the right of the chapel, the original paleo-christian arcades of the basilica’s north transept. The apse seen to the left of the chapel was added in the 11th or 12th century.
Fresco of the Coronation of the Virgin in the apse, ca. 1510, by Ambrogio da Fossano, also known as Bergognone (1470 ca. - 1523).
The monastic choir, which was considerably enlarged in 1517. This necessitated moving the high altar, which led to the discovery underneath it of the relics of Ss Simplician, the three martyrs of Anaunia, with whom were also buried Vigilius of Trent, and three Sainted bishops of Milan, Benignus, Ampellius and Gerontius.
The tabernacle of the main altar; the names of the principal Saints whose relics are in the basilica are written on the altar frontal.
The chapel of the Holy Rosary...
which also has a beautiful tabernacle.

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