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from issue no. 07 - 2003

The history of Santa Maria presso San Celso

The sweet look of Mary

The history of Santa Maria presso San Celso, the most popular Milan shrine. Already at the end of the 4th century this area had become a place of pilgrimage because of the finding of the bodies of the martyrs Nazarus and Celsus. And in 1485, in front of hundreds of witnesses, the ancient image of Our Lady and Child, which Saint Ambrose had ordered to be painted, miraculously moved

by Giuseppe Frangi

The facade of the shrine of Santa Maria presso San Celso and the altar of Our Lady, that still has a fragment of the 4th century 
Saint Ambrosian wall. On the altar, a seventeenth century copy of the image of Mary

The facade of the shrine of Santa Maria presso San Celso and the altar of Our Lady, that still has a fragment of the 4th century Saint Ambrosian wall. On the altar, a seventeenth century copy of the image of Mary

It is a very simple story but also a very old one that sets apart Santa Maria presso San Celso, the most popular Milan shrine. The story dates as far back as the year 395. As Paulinus of Milan, the biographer of bishop Ambrose, reports, in that year, «in a cemetery outside the city» in place called of the “Three Moors”, towards the south, the intact body of the martyr Nazarus was found. «His blood still as fresh as if it had been shed that very day», notes Paulinus, who says he witnessed the fact with his own eyes. And he goes on: «His head, which had been cut off by the unbelievers, so whole and incorrupt with hair and beard, as to seem washed and composed in the very moment in which it was disinterred». The unbelievers to whom the biographer is referring were emissaries of Nero: in fact, according to tradition, Nazarus, had been baptized by Pope Linus and died during Nero’s persecution. The chronicle of Paulinus then goes on to report that bishop Ambrose had the body «laid upon a litter» and brought to the basilica dedicated to the Holy Apostles, just then built on the road leading to Rome (from then on called “of the Holy Apostles and Nazarus”). Then the bishop went back to the “Three Moors” «to make oraison» at the place where, according to tradition, was buried another martyr, Celsus, the child martyr who, leaving his native Nice, had followed Nazarus and had died, like him, during Nero’s persecution.
“Information” that passed from witness to witness, as the biographer reports: «The guardians of the place stated that they had been told by their parents never to leave the place, for there were great treasures buried there». Reliable information, Paulinus stresses, given that shortly afterwards the body of Celsus was also found in the cemetery. This time Ambrose ordered it not to be moved. He built a shrine, a “cella memoriae”, where he had the tomb of the martyr (and the 4th century sarcophagus still kept in the present shrine) placed under the altar. Then in a niche behind he had painted a moving image of Our Lady and Child, protected by a grille.
With the passage of the centuries, the area continued to fulfill its simple and traditional function as Christian cemetery. The painting Ambrose had decided on always remained there, protected by a simple grille, close to the burial place of Saint Celsus. Pilgrims continued to pay homage to it. And if time dimmed its colors and the outlines, someone always came to revive and restore them. Around the year 996, Landolfo of Carcano, Archbishop of Milan, decided to construct a building to house the increasing number of pilgrims. The “basilichetta”, as the historians describe it, was entrusted to the Benedictines, whose cloister, built on the right of the building, survived into the ’thirties of the century just gone. Around the cloister a suburban settlement developed, the “borgo di San Celso”. In 1430 Fillipo Maria Visconti, Duke of Milan, ordered the building, beside the ancient “basilichetta”, of a more capacious edifice. The new church could hold three hundred people, as the historians of the period say with Milanese precision. And there were three hundred of them packed in on that 30 December 1485 when the event occurred that has shaped the history of the place. Father Pietro Porro was celebrating mass, in the crowded church. It was a Friday, toward 11 o’clock. All of a sudden the figure, though vague, of Our Lady began to stir: at first lifting the veil which, behind the grille, protected her; then, holding out her arms, finally joining her hands. The Child also seemed to sketch a blessing to the faithful. «There was an explosion of enthusiastic feeling, according to those who were present», writes the most scholarly historian of the shrine, Ferdinando Reggiori, «and it was to go on and protract for days; the gathering of supplicants, the invocations of the helpless and the sick, graces and healings: the entire city was overwhelmed». The evidence, that within a few months led to ecclesiastical approval (on 1 April of the following year), is all still kept in the archives of the shrine. Real “recorded” testimonies, taken down one by one, with meticulous precision, testimonies from the faithful of all classes and backgrounds, all present at the “miracle”. Here’s one among many: «In the year 1486, the evening of 7 January, on Saturday… Giovanni Battista Stramitis, presented himself, woodworker, dwelling at Porta Ticinese, in the parish of San Giorgio al Palazzo who, invited to tell the truth…». The simple woodworker told of what he had seen a week before. The report goes on: «During the last oration after communion he saw … the face of the Virgin moving and looking alive almost like a woman peering through the grille. In that very moment the cry of “Mercy!” went up among the bystanders, along with many tears. And the veil that was in front of the grille lifted upwards and then dropped and the Virgin could be seen in the same position and she there stayed for the space of at least a couple of Hail Marys».

Nothing else happened. Not a word, not a message. As Ambrose had indicated in his sermons, Mary had simply come to visit, out of goodness, as she had done with her cousin Elizabeth. She stayed with her relatives – now her faithful - for the space of a “couple of Hail Marys”.
Nothing more. But the faithful in Milan of the time asked nothing more. They decided to build, on the site of the apparition, or rather, on the site where she had “made herself known”, a large church dedicated to Our Lady. Santa Maria presso San Celso, precisely: just as Ambrose had originally suggested. And in that “presso”, next to, there is all the physicality and tenderness of a “making oneself known”, of a “remaining present”, without clamor or rhetoric.
Today Santa Maria presso San Celso is a beautiful church, large and restrained like the best of Lombardy churches, looking out over a busy and important city thoroughfare (in the past Corso San Celso, now Corso Italia). It is the building decided on by Galeazzo Maria Sforza and begun in 1493, enlarged gradually as the pilgrims increased in numbers. In 1513 the very handsome portico was built, so ample and welcoming that it seemed designed to accompany the pilgrims right inside the site of the miracle. The interior of the shrine is a small treasure chest of the art of the Po valley. But nothing “cries aloud” the presence that has now inhabited the place for more than 16 centuries. Beneath the high altar, in an urn of glass, dressed in cloth-of-gold, lies the body of Celsus, the child martyr. A clue: Mary must therefore be “next” to him. And so she is. But the small aedicule, shy and hidden, is set under the table of a massive Baroque altar, abutting the left-hand pillar. One has to kneel to see it. It contains that tender image, worn by time, wrinkled as it were. Mary looks at the Child and he with an even sweeter gesture is holding her hand. The image emerges from a wall deep-set like a window with many jambs. And Mary stares out of the window. The elderly faithful call it the “Our Lady of Saint Ambrose and of the Miracle”. Where by “miracle” (in the singular, notice) is simply meant her peering out. And the joy it generates in those who stoop and encounter her face. Nothing more .

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