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Friday, February 19, 2016

Northern Italy Part 2: Milan's Cathedral (Duomo di Milano)

After a couple of days enjoying the views of the lake, the mountains, and the tiny towns around Lake Como, we headed down to Milan.  For some reason, all the signs at the airport and on the roads call it Milano instead.  :)  We were actually there to see the World's Fair, but that was kind of a bust.  It was so crowded it would take more than an hour to get in to any of the biggest exhibits, which meant you could only see a few.  The size of the fair was impressive, spreading out over a a couple of square miles!  But, cappuccinos, buffalo mozzarella, and the cathedral in Milan made up for any disappointment we had with the fair.

[We went to Lake Como for the first part of our visit to Northern Italy.]

If you've traveled around Europe, you've probably run into many of the best attractions covered in scaffolding, as they're always restoring things here - either from damage from weather and pollution, or just plain old age.  We were really fortunate that Milan's cathedral has just emerged from several years of restoration, in amazing condition.  These restorations last so long, that we often despair of ever seeing the results.

The current cathedral replaced a much older Christian church built while Milan was still the Roman town Mediolanum, in the late 4th century AD.  The current building was started in 1386, but took hundreds of years to complete, as money ran out, kings died, and alliances shifted.  Oddly enough, the facade was finally completed in 1805, on Napolean's orders, to make himself look good when he was having himself crowned King of Italy.  Yes, Napolean's wars pushed Italy toward being a country instead of a collection of various rival city-states like Venice, Rome, Genoa, etc.

The cathedral's exterior is covered in hundreds of one-of-a-kind sculptures.  The stone used has an amazing variety of subtle salmon and cream colors, so unlike typical all-white cathedrals.  It's eye-catching, yet not too flashy.  I love it.

I imagine there have been many doctorates obtained discussing all the statues ornamenting every facet of the cathedral.  I'd have loved to hear from someone who knew the stories behind each one.  I've got a good one for a sculpture inside at the end of this article.  

To my untrained eye, this cathedral belongs in the top ranks of cathedrals worldwide, alongside Notre Dame, St. Mark's, and other giants.  The interior has also been restored.  The lighting really warms up what would otherwise be a dim cavern.   

Here's the great story about a statue on the interior I promised earlier.  This is a statue of Saint Bartholomew, made by Marco D'Agrate in 1562.  My first association with an image like this in a religious context is the period when the Buddha became an ascetic, and fasted for weeks in the wilderness.  I've seen many statues of him looking skeletal.  But, of course, this is a Catholic church, so it's not likely they'd have a statue of the Buddha, though not entirely impossible these days either.  My second association with an image like this is the Holocaust and the death camps, where prisoners were found starving.  But, my second guess was just as wrong as my first.  

Instead, what this man is holding wrapped around his body is not clothing, or a fur, or an animal.  It is his entire skin.  You can see the skin that came from his own hand hanging down from the exposed muscle of his hand.  The reason he is depicted this way is that "flaying" was an actual punishment. and it is said that Saint Bartholomew was flayed before being beheaded in Armenia.  This was his sentence for bringing Christianity to that part of the world.  The statue itself reminds me of Gray's Anatomy, not the television show, but the book.  I imagine this sculpture was made around the same time when doctors were secretly dissecting human corpses in their early attempts to understand human anatomy. 

A closer up view of the choir and ambulatory...

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