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from issue no. 04 - 2006

He made the Cathedral an example for all

As soon as he came to Milan, Saint Charles set the tabernacle in the place of honor in the Cathedral, where he himself assiduously celebrated mass, preached, heard confessions, gave catechism

by Giuseppe Frangi

Saint Charles celebrating the provincial councils and diocesan synods in Milan Cathedral

Saint Charles celebrating the provincial councils and diocesan synods in Milan Cathedral

Let’s imagine the scene: it is 23 September 1565. Charles Borromeo, appointed archbishop of Milan five years previously, enters the Cathedral of Milan for the first time to celebrate the first provincial council. Already the Gothic and Nordic aspect of that building still far from completion, with all those dark recesses and that sense of disorder, can’t have been in any way congenial to him. He, who had grown up in the clear and unambiguous spaces of Renaissance Rome, couldn’t put up with that makeshift character and chaos. Furthermore Milan Cathedral had in those years become almost a covered square, an extension of civilian life. The two doors of the transept were a passageway that saved one walking round the building, as a chronicler of the time recounts: «even porters burdened with vats full of wine went through». Buying and selling also took place beneath the vaults, asses came in and out with their saddle-packs, among those immense columns loud bargaining reverberated.
But worst was the celebrant view from the presbytery: «Wooden chests decorated with brocaded carpets» hung between the columns, «hanging from reinforced chains». These were the coffins of the dukes, from Galeazzo Maria Visconti to Francesco Sforza, dangling lugubriously before the eyes of the priest. From the vaulted ceiling hung the banners of the most powerful city families. Altogether a late Gothic horror show that blatantly contravened the directives issued by the Council of Trent in the celebrated Instructiones fabricae et supellectilis ecclesiasticae drawn up by Borromeo himself in 1577.
Imagining the shock and the indignation of the archbishop at that spectacle is not forcing reality too far. So true is it that Charles very quickly arrived at a confrontation with the Cathedral Chapter, blamed for the wretched situation, and in 1567 brought in a Roman architect (Roman by training even if born in Como), Pellegrino Tibaldi, as Prefect of the Fabric, dismissing Vincenzo Seregni, then in charge. The opposing faction of local architects, led by Martino Bassi, was helpless in the face of the archbishop’s determination and that of his faithful spokesman. It was radically necessary to set things straight, and the point of attack was the crucial point, the presbytery. Before his arrival in Milan Borromeo had sent ahead a gift for the cathedral given him by his uncle, Pope Pius IV: a precious tower-shaped tabernacle for the high altar. Along with Tibaldi he drew up a radical plan that involved the raising of the presbytery. The eyes of those entering should converge on the focal point: the high altar and specifically that spectacular tabernacle, now elevated by four large angels and made clearly visible. The very fine and gigantic pulpits abutting the pillars of the polygonal dome acted as wings for this new layout of the Cathedral. The polycentric disorder of the Gothic building was done away with, the visible permanence of the Eucharist at the center re-established. The Classical set in order what the Gothic had left as its legacy of chaos.
Raising the presbytery had created space for the crypt intended for the remains of the Ambrosian saints and which would then receive the body of Borromeo himself; the stories of those saints, first and foremost of Ambrose, were entrusted instead to the carvers who, under the guidance of Tibaldi, were creating the high-backed stalls of the new large choir behind the altar (they can still be admired there today, in what has however become the weekday chapel). Among his predecessors, other than Ambrose, Borromeo had a special veneration for Saint John the Good, bishop of Milan between 641 and 660, whose remains he had solemnly transferred to the Cathedral on 24 May 1582. He was the bishop of the first tempestuous period of Lombard dominance, forced for many years into exile in Liguria, a pastor proverbial for his generosity and his peaceful spirit. Thus in Borromeo’s plans the Cathedral truly became the house of all the Ambrosian saintliness (a Church that in its history has had a good 38 saints among its 143 bishops).
Charles’ attitude to secular power was different: after having eliminated the coffins of the dukes, he also removed the governor in power from the presbytery, putting an end to a privilege that seemed very much like interference with the freedom of the Church. He also made a clean sweep of the altars with which the Milanese aristocracy had occupied the naves in disorderly fashion: he replaced them with six identical altars, designed in Roman style by his faithful follower Tibaldi, that had the sole function of tables for the celebration of mass. The one concession, in the right transept, was the funeral monument to Gian Giacomo Medici, called the ‘Medeghino’, brother of Pius IV, who was Borromeo’s uncle on his mother’s side.
In 1577, with the works almost completed, Borromeo decided to reconsecrate the Cathedral in a solemn celebration. By now, apart from being the emblem of his action and therefore the model for all the churches that were to come to match the criteria dictated by the Council of Trent, it had become his “parish”. People were surprised at the continuous presence in the Cathedral. Apart from the six provincial councils and the eleven diocesan synods that he had presided over in those naves, Borromeo preached, celebrated solemn masses, heard confessions and participated in penitential processions. Here he organized the School of Christian Doctrine that served as model for the whole diocese. And he ordered that the bells of the Cathedral should ring every time that a mass was celebrated during the day.
The ciborium with the tabernacle

The ciborium with the tabernacle

The relic of the Holy Nail, one of the nails of Jesus’ Cross, is a chapter to itself. According to tradition, Ambrose had received it from Theodosius and it was kept in the early Christian cathedral of Saint Tecla (he himself speaks of it in his funeral oration for the emperor). When Borromeo entered the Cathedral, the relic was up over the choir, at a height of over forty meters; for twenty-five years no one had taken it down for the veneration of the faithful. In 1566 Charles provided for a new arrangement, recommending that «care be taken of the lamp of the Nail and that it be polished every week» (details were everything for Borromeo…). In 1576, with Milan devastated by the plague, the archbishop called three public processions to pray for an end of the scourge. He led them himself, barefoot and with a rope around his neck, carrying the relic round the city. «He had the Sacred Nail brought down», his faithful bishop and biographer Carlo Bescapé notes, «by priests raised up on certain machines and carried it, duly inserted in a large cross [still visible in the fifth altar of the left nave, ed.] in procession, amidst the great homage of all the people». Wednesday 3 October the route wound as far as Sant’Ambrogio; Friday 5 as far as the Basilica of the Santi Apostoli and Nazaro Maggiore; Saturday 6 to Santa Maria near San Celso. It was an epic event that impressed itself on the memory of the city, immortalized in thousands of images and re-evocations: a bishop taking part and sharing in the destiny of his people and summoning them to an act of hope. «The outcome was so happy», writes Bescapé again, «that with such a multitude of people, not only did no one drop in the street, but neither did anything happen that could have provoked an increase of the contagion».
Some years afterwards, he himself wrote down an assessment of the experience, in a text extraordinary for its passion, faith and realism: «The great fled, the low fled, so many abandoned you then Milan, both nobles and common people… it seemed that everything was full of desolation and of desperation, and that we had been abandoned by God». The words come from the Memorial to the Milanese, almost a testament of the bishop to his city, which concludes with an exhortation not to forget: «Remember so many thousands of poor, for whose sustenance in those pestiferous times, it was necessary for me to sell and pawn everything…». And then, on his part: «I will remember to remind children and those who come after me, and to preach to others the favors received. I will remember always to go seeking new ways to be grateful to God through works».
An ancient view of the Cathedral

An ancient view of the Cathedral

As an explicit sign of gratitude Charles established that every 3 May, the day on which the Church recalls the finding of the Cross by Saint Helen, the relic with the Nail should be exposed in the Cathedral for the veneration of the faithful for forty hours. «Charles never went away», Bescapé notes, «gradually as a new group arrived he first addressed a pious exhortation, then, going from the pulpit to the altar, he recited with all the people the litanies of the saints; finally, before they left, he gave his blessing and granted a ten year indulgence». The governor didn’t look on this with an indulgent eye, because a kind of curfew still operated in the city after the dark days of the plague. But Charles, however, «could never be distanced from the altar for any natural necessity, until the period of the forty hours was completed… for this reason he never conceded not even at night-time any time to sleep or to other exigencies of life».
The last act in the relationship between Borromeo and his Cathedral is posthumous: the grandiose and touching cycle of large canvases with the story of his life, that was dedicated to him on the occasion of his beatification (in 1604); and of that other “twin” cycle with his miracles produced for his canonization (1610). It is a story in picture that gets exhibited in the cathedral every year from 4 November, the day of his feast, until the Epiphany. And it is a “choral” cycle, because created by several artists, that, with high and low points, expresses the admiration and affection of the city for its great bishop-parish priest, who died after a feverish life at a mere 46 years old. From 1610 he reposes in the little crypt beneath the presbytery that he himself, with great determination and clarity of purpose, had transformed, so that it would be clear to all that at the center of his Cathedral there was the Eucharist. Jesus Christ, that is, for whom he had given his life.

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