The Duomo di Milano, a masterpiece of faith and art, is assuredly inspired mostly by the intense devotion the Milanese people had and still have for the Blessed Virgin. The construction of the Cathedral “commenced in her name”, as witnessed by the ancient documents of Veneranda Fabbrica.
Men and women of all times have manifested their devotion to the Blessed Virgin through many artistic forms, and there are many images of Mary in the Duomo (e.g., the famous Madonnina who watches over Milan from the peak of the Main Spire). One of these images is particularly interesting, and experienced a moment of intense fervour especially in the 1400s. We are referring to the devotion to the “Madonna del coazzone” or “of the plait”, the Blessed Virgin portrayed with long hair. The coazzone was a hairstyle that was the height of fashion among ladies of high society in the late 1300s and early 1400s. It was a long plait that combined actual hair, faux hair and ribbons to create the illusion of a new natural feminine look, though the net that secured the plait to the head could be finely adorned with precious trimmings. The coazzone was, for instance, the favourite hairstyle of young Beatrice d’Este, Ludovico il Moro’s bride.
This particular subject of German origin was most likely conceived before the construction of the Duomo. Indeed, it was already the object of devotion in the ancient Church of Santa Maria Maggiore. When the winter basilica was demolished, the painting was lost and replaced by a similar one by Cristoforo de Mottis, which can be dated around 1466. Indeed, a Marian effigy in silver had been sent from the German area in July 1465 with a request to confirm whether it was a faithful reproduction of the Milanese one, which had long hair. Unfortunately, the original subject had been lost and Cristoforo de Mottis was appointed to repaint the image based on the model that had arrived from across the Alps. Hence, the picture was placed on a pillar of the Cathedral until, in 1479, Pietro Antonio Solari reproduced the subject in a statue, which is now preserved in the Sforza Castle.
The Madonna del Coazzone was the focus of great devotion on the part of Milanese of that period. Placed on a side altar, the devotion also spread abroad. Almost forty reproductions were found from Bavaria to Tyrol, and an altar was dedicated to “Notre Dame de Milan” at the Abbey of Saint-Bertin, France, in 1481.
In the latter half of the 1500s, St. Charles finally ordered the statue to be removed, perhaps because the faithful were superstitious about it and also because they had the habit of hanging their thank you gifts for fulfilled vows in disorderly fashion. However, the altar remains a place of Marian devotion. Today it is the one dedicated to the “Virgo Potens”, situated in the southern lateral aisle (right side of the Cathedral). Archbishops Eugenio Tosi, Giovanni Colombo and Dionigi Tettamanzi were buried at the foot of the altar.
In the Grande Museo del Duomo, the halls dedicated to the Visconti’s period contain a small refined sculpture of the Madonna del Coazzone, which provides evidence of the devotion German workers who worked at the construction yard of the Cathedral had for the Blessed Virgin.