A vast interior – Milan Cathedral

Sculptural-friezeThe impressive, ornate Duomo di Milano is unmistakable and familiar to anyone vaguely interested in medieval church buildings, but what about inside . . .  naturally it’s vast. The interior space can accommodate 40,000 people in the 12,000 square metres. It feels magnificent as you enter the immense, shadowy gloom from the bright Milanese daylight.

It is hard to capture the scale of the space which is dominated by the 52 pillars that make up the five aisles of the church, but a few shots down the nave to the altar and beyond . . .

and then standing in the transept to the right of the main alter looking across to the northern apse, encompassing the Altar of the Madonna and the Tree,  . . .

Across the transept looking northwards to the Altar of the Madonna and the Tree.

and then turning around to face the altar of Saint John Bono (San Giovanni Bono) on the southern side of the transept, and you begin to get the idea.

Altar of San Giovanni Bono filling the southern apse of the transept.

Milan Cathedral has taken over 600 years to complete and during those centuries various architectural and art styles have come and gone. Interestingly, although the Altar of San Giovanni Bono looks at first glance as if it was a whole, complete design created at one time by a single sculptor, it is actually a combination of sculptural pieces. The main figure of San Gionvanni Bono in the centre of this classical style altar, was sculpted by the 18th century sculptor Elia Vincenzo Buzzi around 1763. The statue stands beneath the inscription ‘Ego sun pastor bonus’ (I am the Good Shepherd) and it is flanked to its right by The Guardian Angel and to the left by St Michael. I liked the composition of The Guardian Angel grouping and thought it made an interesting photograph. Our guide simply walked past the whole altar affair, ignoring it and began to relate the details of the more famous Marco d’Agrate statue of St Bartholomew nearby.

Now back home, I have spent some time digging around in the literature and at the same time examining my photographs. I’ve discovered that the two statues flanking the central display were created by a different sculptor and not Buzzi. They are the work of Giovanni Bellandi and were carved 140 years earlier than the Buzzi work. If you look closely the Bellandi work is less stiff and formal than the Buzzi statue. In any case I just liked the idea of such a grand altar being a successful composite of more than one artist’s work carved over a century apart.

Another decorative element of the building that significantly adds to the drama of the experience is the beautiful stained glass.

Soaring 20 metres up towards the ceiling the windows are filled with stained glass some from the 15th and 16th centuries with more additions in the 19th century and some new windows commissioned as recently as 1988. Stained glass is more fragile than stone, and requires regular maintenance. The cleaning and repairing work began in the 17th century and has been carried out ever since.

Of course, over the centuries, many hundreds if not several thousands of people have worked to build and adorn the cathedral and most of them remain unnamed. In our individualistic times celebrating named, famous artists, it is refreshing to think of the extensive collaboration of these unnamed people, working together over hundreds of years, to create such a magnificent building as the Duomo.


Magnificent patterned floor
Magnificent patterned floor of Candoglia white, Varenna black and red marble (1584) designed by Pellegrino Tibaldi (1527-96) – laid by many hands.






Author: agnesashe

Artisan, blogger and passionate East Anglian working from home.

12 thoughts on “A vast interior – Milan Cathedral”

  1. It is amazing how things of such scale were ever built. It does make you wonder how it took them six hundred years though considering how our big medieval buildings must have been built much quicker, in a much more basic time, because it was in Tudor times that a lot were pulled down. It also makes you wonder at what point they got a roof on and kept the rain out.

    In baking I’d like to make some of those artistic stained glass windows from boiled sweets and I looked to York Cathedral for inspiration. It turns out they’ve removed the Great East Window for restoration, so it must be drafty in there now, and the massive Great West Window was created and installed between 1338 and 1339… and cost just £67.

    I can’t find the details of each window but one of them contains 100,000 individual pieces of glass. If that took a year or two then they must have been sloppy workmen compared to Milan!

    1. I think we have this idea that iconic buildings that survived from the past are now fixed at some special point of their existence when in reality they are always being maintained, renovated, extended and even, dare I say it, modernised. I am with the folk that believe in being up front about change and not trying to preserve everything in aspic. I suppose the big cathedrals in this country like York feel they are preserving a legacy, not sure how they don’t end up being dinosaurs though. Great use of boiled sweets. If you did the calculations you’d probably find that a packet of boiled sweets today costs the same money paid for a stained glass parish church window in the 14th century!!!!

      1. Yes we do get the idea that they’re fixed images now, give or take. I’m assuming that the Spanish 600 years was the time to do all the carving though as opposed to modernisation. I guess that even though they’ll have installed electricity and lighting as they went it still won’t have been up to modern requirements.

        I think I may have recommended it before but the Alan Bennett play People deals with that sort of duplicity of (falsely) maintaining in a property in certain way with the National Trust.

        As for the sweets I recall going to York as a child and thought I was shown the stained glass window which contained the devil and was told it was the only one. Perhaps the only Medieval image? Anyway I can find nothing of that now so don’t know if it was somewhere else or what the exact details are.

        I did think that stained glass windows would be mostly small panels of glass, thus ideal to copy, but there seems a whole load more paining going on. Also I cannot find any boiled sweets to buy, other than loose in a sweet shop, and I need to know that they’re vegetarian!

      2. I think that you should look round a National Trust shop for some vegetarian boiled sweets being weighed out on a pair of authentic Victorian scales by an authentic Victorian sweet shop owner . . . (type person). Alternatively, I would suggest a similar adventure going to Disneyland Paris for that exemplary authentic experience, but I don’t think they do veggie sweeties. Excuse the sarcasm it’s been a long and trying week. 😐

  2. Thanks for this virtual visit to a building I haven’t visited in a very long time. I’d forgotten such a lot, but remember loving the elegant floor tiles.

    1. Yes, the floor is stunning. Having found out so much more about the cathedral now, I feel the need to go back again – most definitely requires more than one visit.

    1. 😊 Thank you – would have been a whole lot better, but tripods are banned and the low light meant such a slow shutter speed all pics not really in focus. 🙁

  3. The scale is beyond anything the average Aussie would conceive if they have never travelled. And then to imagine there was a time when people were so devoted that a cathedral of that size would fill. Not to mention the amazing artworks that also fill it.

  4. Every now and then something stops you and makes you think about time on more than simply an individual’s single experience. I think it’s quite revitalising to step out of oneself and try and focus on a wider horizon. The builders of medieval churches certainly understood the power and drama of light and space and its manipulation.

  5. Thank you for sharing me the interior shots of the cathedral! 😍 When I visited the city years ago, the place was closed for restoration works. Now I know when it is like thanks to you. Taking 600 years to complete! No one has such patience nowadays, don’t we? Then, there wouldn’t be any World Heritage sites today if our predecessors were impatient and greedy like present rulers and politicians…😞

    1. I agree. We, in our times, appear to have lost the long, grand view of building or planting for future generations. More sadly, our greed is overseeing the destruction of so much ancient, nature like the coral of the Great Barrier Reef. It is sunny here today, but it is difficult to find much to be positive about in these troubled times. At least Bella is so full of life and fun.😍

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