Guided Tours in Milan

Portinari Chapel - Devil in the guise of  Virgin Mary

Florentine Renaissance art in the heart of Milan.

Museum hours: 9:00 - 12:00 and 15:30 - 18:45 Duration: 2 hours Availability: Tue - Sun. Mon. closed Meeting time: on request

Opposite the ruins of medieval city walls in the heart of Milan there is the Church of Saint Eustorgio, the one of the most picturesque churches of Milan.

The roots of the church reach 4th century when the first church was built in this site. The legend says that the first church was founded by Saint Eustorgio himself between 315 -331. The early Romanesque church has been changed, altered, extended and modified countless times but still conserves its Roman form. The history of the church is strongly tied up with the legend of Three Magi. It is really unbelievable story. Even though Three Magi do not play important role in the Jesus life, they are highly honored by Catholic Church for being first pilgrims to adore the newborn Infant Jesus in Bethlehem (St. Matthew 2:1). According to the legend, the relicts of Three Magi were discovered in 314 by Saint Helena (288-328), mother of Constantine the Great, in her pilgrimage to Jerusalem and the Holy Lands. She took their remains to the church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. Two centuries later the remains of Three Magi were brought from Constantinopole to Milan by Saint Eustorgio II (d. 512) in an ox-cart and enshrined in Roman sarcophagus in the church named after their transporter. Together with the holy relicts a craved stone slab with the Latin inscription ”SEPVLCRVM TRIVM MAGORVM” which can be translated as ”Sepulcher of Three Magi” was brought to Milan. In 1162 Milan has fallen to Holy Roman Emperor Frederic Barbarossa (1122 - 1190). Two years later, at the behest of Emperor Barbarossa the relics of Three Magi were stolen and in 1164 transfered to Cologne. Eight centuries later, in 1903, some fragments of the Three Magi relicts were returned to Milan and again enshrined in the Three Magi Chapel of Saint Eustorgio church.

During Emperor Barbarossa's occupation, the church was heavily damaged. After 1190 the church was quickly rebuilt in early Gothic style by Dominicans. The typical for this region Lombard bell tower was added between 1297-1309. Between 13th and 15th centuries severals chapels were build on the right side of the church. The chapels were splendidly decorated with frescos by Lombard and Florentine artists. In the first chapel Bergognone's fresco ”Madonna and the Saints” is worth to see. The fourth chapel holds the tomb of Stefano Visconti (1289 - 1337), Lord of Arona, a Gothic masterpiece by Giovanni Balduccio (active 1319 - 1349), and the 14th century fresco of the Crucifixion on the left wall. In the south transept there is the Cappella dei Magi, a chapel that contains a late Roman sarcophagus that holds the supposed relics of the Three Magi mentioned before. The Brivio chapel, recently restored to its Renaissance splendor, contains the tomb of Tommaso Cazzaniga from 1486 by Giacomo Stefano Brivio. The middle part of the bas-relief depict the scene of ”Adoration of the Magi” which is thematically related to the history of the church.

From the false crypt our route leads to the Portinari Chapel, true jewell of early Renaissance art in Milan. The Portinari Chapel was commissioned by the rich Florentine banker Pigello di Folco Portinari (1421 - 1468) as his and his family burial chapel. Pigello Portinari was a rich branch manager of the Medici bank in Milan during Piero di Cosimo de Medici time (1416 - 1469). His burial chapel Pigello Portinari dedicated to Saint Peter Martyr probably under influence of strong devotion of his patron, Piero di Cosimo de Medici, to that saint. The chapel was built between 1462-68 in early Florentine Renaissance style, which was applied for first time in Florence by Filippo Bruneleschi 20 years earlier.

Based on two rooms of different sizes (the smaller is used for the altar) the architectonical structure of the chapel was traditionally attributed to Florentine architect Michelozzo di Bartolomeo (1396 - 1472), however, it could be also a work of Lombard artist associated with Tuscan circle. The chapel walls are covered by fine narrative frescos by Vincenzo Foppa (1427/30 - 1515/16). The frescos show the scenes from the life of the saint and Virgin Mary. Some of them show also scenes of miracles performed by Saint Peter Martyr during his life. Presented here detail of a fresco by Vincenzo Foppa from the Portinari chapel shows the Virgin and Child appear to the faithful. Saint Peter Martyr is recognizable here as being dressed in the Dominican habit of black and white. However, if you look carefully (enlarge the image) you might see that the Virgin is really the devil, the two little horns are clearly visible. Saint Peter Martyr drives it off with the consecrated host.

Located in the center of the Portinari chapel the shrine for the body of Dominican Saint Peter Martyr (died 1252), the Gothic masterpiece of the Lombard art, was made by Giovanni di Balduccio (active 1319 - 1349) and his workshop between 1336 - 1339. The Balduccio's composition commissioned by Azzone Visconti (1302 - 1339, from 1329 Lord of Milan) was heavily influenced on Classical figurative relief compositions of Tuscany sculptors Nicola Pisano (1210/20 - 1278/84) and his son Giovanni Pisano (1245 - 1314). The saint's tomb primary located in the left nave of Basilica was moved to the Portinari chapel in 1774. During this event some of the panels were lost and sold outside Italy (for example St. Peter Martyr with donors that can be seen in Metropolitan Museum of Art, The Cloisters Collection in New York, USA).
The tomb consist of elaborate white marble coffin supported by eight statues of Virtues. The bas-relief sculptures on the coffin show the scenes from the saint life.

Saint Peter Martyr (1205 - 1252) was born in Verona in 1205. In 1218 he joined the Dominican order, receiving the habit from the hands of Saint Dominic himself. Despite that he was himself the child of the nobel Cathar heretics he preached fervently against all heresies . To combat heresies the Pope Gregory IX (1170 - 1241) established the papal Inquisition under the direction of the Dominicans. About 1232 Gregory IX appointed young, vigorous Dominican preacher Peter (1205 - 1252), later saint, as a General Papal Inquisitor. In 1251 the pope Innocent IV (1200 -1254) reappointed him as General Papal Inquisitor with legal permission the use of torture to extract the confessions of heresy. According to the sixteenth century historian Scipione Ammirato, Peter fought the heresy not only with words. In armed combat with sword and fire he fought the heresies of Christians, especially Cathars, who held orthodox view on the nature of God and evil. After one of his preaching in 1252, he was successfully assassinated with an ox by his powerful heretical enemies near Seveso in the place called Barlasina. His remains were transfered to S. Eustorgio church in Milan. He was canonized in 1253 by Innocent IV and he became the patron of Inquisitors. The ox - a tool with which he was killed is still preserved as a relic in the church at Barlasina. Want to learn more about splendid frescos, historical facts and legends, join one of our tours.

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