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24 April Apr 2018 1423 9 months ago

The carved magnificence of the Duomo's wooden choir

In the heart of the Cathedral

Among the wonders within the Duomo, a testament to the splendour of the era of the Borromeo family, one of the most elegantly carved masterpieces in the history of religious art really stands out. It is the choir, reserved for the church officials of the Cathedral's Major and Minor Chapters, located in the heart of the temple, where both the Eucharistic sacrament and the choral office were celebrated, situated within the marble enclosure of the tornacoro, just behind the main altar, currently accessible from the area reserved for Christian prayer.

After the conclusion of the Council of Trent, in 1563, Saint Charles dedicated a great deal of care and attention to the construction of the Duomo's presbytery, according to the dictates and principles imposed by the Catholic reformation. Religious services became centred around the tabernacle. It is from within this context that the idea of furnishing the Cathedral with a majestic architectural centrepiece, consisting of a double enclosure, originated, aimed at re-enforcing the supreme importance of the Eucharist as a central element of Christian religious life. Thus, an enclosure that was marble on the outside (with the Stories of the Virgin Mary) and wooden on the inside was chosen for the grandiose choir, destined most notably for the church officials.

Saint Charles chose Ambrose, the patron saint of Milan, as the model for himself and for the clergy, and thus wanted the panels on the upper portion of the choir to depict episodes from the life of this great holy archbishop, selected by the same Borromeo from the biography written by Paolino Diacono in 422. The entirety of the masterpiece was designed by Pellegrino Tibaldi, not only the superb and monumental architectural structure, but also the preparatory drawing.

Construction of the new choir, in walnut, was entrusted to carver Paolo de’ Gazi in July 1567. In addition to de’ Gazi, six other carvers worked on the choir over the next forty-five years, carefully carving out the life of Ambrose in the choir's upper dossals: Riccardo de’ Taurini, Virgilio del Conte, Giacomo de’ Taurini, Giovanni de’ Taurini, Giovan Battista Mangone, and Giulio Cesare Mangone, until the completion of the wooden series in 1614. The carvers worked from drawings by Pellegrino Tibaldi (it is believed for 49 of the panels), but we know that in 1591 Aurelio Luini was paid for an additional eight drawings, to which were added the seven which Camillo Procaccini had been paid for between 1598 and 1602, and even a contribution by Angelo Marini, or “Siciliano”.

The 71 dossals reserved for the Cathedral's Major Chapter narrate the life of Ambrose, while the martyrdoms of the saints appear in the lower sections. Meanwhile, the dossals of the Minor Chapter are dedicated to the bishops of the Ambrosian Church.

Thus we retrace the most significant episodes in the life of Ambrose: after the long biographical section and before the scenes that depict the agony of the saint's death, a series of panels were inserted which refer to his life as a pastor and bishop, illustrating his virtue and values as an individual.

The choir is an extraordinarily beautiful masterpiece, admired by all those who enter the Weekday Chapel daily for religious services.