The Duomo is deeply rooted in the portion of urban land which, starting from the 3rd century A.D., formed the Christian religious center of Milan, developing on top of ancient basilicas and baptisteries.
The history of the building can be summed up in the following essential phases:
1. 1386-1387: The Episcopal Phase
2. 1387-1447: The Visconti Phase
3. 1450-1520: The Sforza Phase
4. 1560-1650: The Borromeo Phase
5. 1650-1800: The Sixteen and Seventeen Hundreds
6. 1800-1900: The 19th Century
7. 1900s: The 20th Century to Present Day
8. The Cathedral and Prayer
This is the phase that ensues from a project wanted by the archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo, in accordance with the architectural styles, techniques and elements of Lombard Gothic art.
As to the planimetric structure that was already in progress, by decision of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, changes are made to the Duomo’s architectural and plastic features: though maintaining some traits inherited from the Romanesque-Lombard experience, brick is replaced with Candoglia marble, spaces expand upward, impressing soaring lines and structural dynamism, and it is embellished with a rich display of sculptures. Local architects, sculptors and craftsmen work alongside artists from central-Europe, thus giving life to original and varied statuary creations. With the exception of the cupola, construction is completed from the apse to the second bay of aisles beyond the transept. The first spire is raised, accompanied by the local production of statues. Finally, the first illustrated stained-glass windows are placed.
The building extends its aisles up to the third last bay. The extremely high-level statuary marks the passage from late-Gothic to Lombard Rebirth and Classicism. The cupola is finally vaulted and beside it stands the elegant small spire by Amadeo. The large windows vibrate with the color and light of some of the most beautiful stained-glass masterpieces in the Duomo.
This period develops following the Catholic Reform, with the new setup of the Duomo and the role of sacred art as the “handmaid of faith,” of which the archbishops Carlo and Federico Borromeo are the main proponents: from the presbytery, to the side altars and the façade, the Quadroni di San Carlo cycle, the wooden choir stalls and the 17 high-reliefs of the tornacoro portraying the Life of the Virgin Many.
This period is characterized by the elegant evolution of sculpture, with debates and projects for the façade. The cupola is also completed with the main spire and the Madonnina.
These are the years in which the façade and ornamentation are finally completed. The statues on the spires are molded according to different styles: from Neoclassical to the many seasons of Romanticism, all the way to Milanese Scapigliatura and Art Nouveau. The production of illustrated stained-glass windows is resumed, but now according to the technique of enamel-painted glass. Finally, this century sees the announcement of the competition for designing a new and consistently Gothic façade, which nonetheless is never realized.
This is the century of great restorations. It is in fact the period of architectural refurbishment of the façade, spires, vaults, and rampant arches. Various “artistic” renovations are also required for the statues, decorative sculptures, stained-glass windows and paintings. Finally, a static restoration of the pillars is also needed. The first archeological digs in Piazza del Duomo begin. There is also the liturgical adaptation of the presbytery following the Second Vatican Council.
The monument as an architectural whole and in the plurality of the sculptural, stained-glass and pictorial cycles, in some way makes visible the invisible realities of the Christian faith and is evidence of the religious tradition of a people. Highly interesting is the understanding of the value of scared art, i.e. the iconography of Christ and Mary expressed in the Duomo.
“The Cathedral is the visible symbol of the unity of the entire Ambrosian Church that gathers around its Bishop. Actually, it is the concrete symbol and image of the century-old history of the Church of Milan: it is here in the Duomo that we see and admire the most excellent of its spiritual, liturgical, artistic and pastoral traditions.”
(Card. Dionigi Tettamanzi, homily for the solemnity of the Dedication of the Cathedral Church, October 17, 2004).
The Duomo, in addition to being an artistic monument, is a privileged place of prayer. The cathedral is closely bound to the memory and the Magisterium of Bishops, who succeeded Saint Ambrose on the bishop’s throne, and to the history of millions of devotees who gather here each year to celebrate the Sacred Mysteries.
The Cathedral is the Mother Church of the Diocese, which holds a symbolic function of exemplarity as to the life of worship in the city and in relation to the activities of the Diocese.
The liturgical activity is the true soul of the Cathedral: the Duomo is the heart of the liturgical tradition which, reminiscent of the figure of Saint Ambrose, is a manifestation of the concrete form with which the apostolic tradition has taken root and developed over the centuries in the Church of Milan.
In the Duomo, daily liturgical prayer is experienced in the multiplicity of its expressions: not just the celebration of the Eucharist, but also, thanks to the constant presence of the Metropolitan Chapter, the Liturgy of the Hours, as preparation for and prolongation of the Eucharist.
Particular attention is reserved for the adoration of the Eucharist, the Liturgy of the Word, the celebration of the Sacrament of Reconciliation or Penance, and the most unaffected and sincere forms of “popular devoutness,” such as the reciting of the Rosary and, during Lent, the practice of the Via Crucis.
The liturgical prayer of the devotees is the soul of the Cathedral which, in all its representations, above all through the countless works of art that it has been preserving for centuries, is called to live and bear witness to the loyalty to the Gospel of Christ, in the very heart of the city.