Thursday, October 08, 2020

Oldest Christian Mosaics in Milan Restored

One of the oldest churches in Milan is a basilica dedicated to St Lawrence, built ca. 390-410 when the city was the de facto capital of the western Roman Empire. Attached to the basilica is a large octagonal mausoleum and chapel, connected to the right transept via an atrium, built in the 5th century and originally dedicated to St Genesius of Arles. Both the atrium and chapel were originally decorated with very high quality mosaic and fresco work, but these were heavily damaged by interventions in the 16th-century, when the chapel was rededicated to another Saint called Aquilinus. A complete restoration of these older decorations has recently been concluded, and so our Ambrosian writer Nicola dei Grandi went to take some pictures.

The best preserved of the mosaics is this image of the “Traditio Legis - the handing down of the law”, a common scene in early Christian iconography which represents the idea that Christ gave the Church a new law which replaces the law of Moses. This was intended to speak to the controversies within the Church, especially among those who were still close to their Jewish roots, as to whether Christians were obliged to keep the Mosaic Law, and if so, to what degree. These controveries were essentially resolved by the 6th century, and this type of image becomes extremely rare. Note that Christ is represented very young, to show that the Son is different from the Father, and is the only figure that has a halo; in the 5th century, halos still indicated which person was the most important in the scene, and were not a sign of holiness per se.
The mosaic as situated within the chapel, which is now mostly quite bare. The decorative band seen in the middle and the fresco to the right are additions of the 16th century; the sarcophagus at the right is seen in greater detail below.
A badly damaged mosaic which has been interpreted as either the Ascension of Elijah, (a story which occupies a prominent place in the Ambrosian liturgy, read at the vigils of both Epiphany and Pentecost), or a representation of Christ in the guise of the Unconquered Sun (Sol invictus), a popular divinity of the later Roman Empire. This cult was very much a creation of the Roman imperial authority, and it is not surprising that such an image would be created to show the upper echelons of society that what was fictitious;y present in the non-existent pagan deity is in fact true present in the True God.
The mosaic as situated in the chapel; again, the decorations to the left and in the middle are of the 16th century.
Surviving fragments of the mosaics in the atrium; the Patriarchs Symeon and Zabulon. 
The feet of the Apostles St Thaddeus, James the son of Alpheus, and Jude.
An apostle, and the label below a now-lost image of St Pelegia, a virgin martyr of Antioch who is mentioned in the preaching of St Ambrose; her feast day is today in the Ambrosian EF and Byzantine Rites.
The mosaics seen in the previous two photos, situated within the atrium, to the right.
On the opposite wall are preserved some fragments of medieval fresco work, a white background with stars; a very small fragment of the original mosaic is preserved under the lower left window.
The elaborated carved doorway that leads from the atrium into the chapel was originally made in the 1st century, and later recycled here.
Some remains of the original fresco work in a bay over one of the windows.
A marble sarcophagus of the 3rd century, reworked in the 6th century for a second, Christian occupant.
Examples of tiles of the ruined mosaics.
The ceiling of the apse opposite the door of the chapel, over the altar which houses the relics of St Aquilinus; this was painted and stuccoed at the end of the 16th-century by Gabriele Bossi and Giuseppe Galberio, at the behest of St Charles.
The altar of St Aquilinus, whose relics are in the crystal and silver urn above, behind the glass.
Like most churches of its age, the basilica of St Lawrence has been heavily rebuilt and redocrated over the centuries; the main church is now covered in the white marble seen here, while the chapel of St Aquilinus is the brick octagon seen here on the left.
A detail of the external false arcade.

More recent articles:

For more articles, see the NLM archives: