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St. Agnes at Museodel Duomo di Milano

Let’s discover the female figures portrayed in the Cathedral’s marble during #MuseumWeek 2019

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14 May May 2019 1523 14 May 2019

The statue of St. Agnes, made of Candoglia marble and taken from a large window of the northern transept of Duomo di Milano, is a masterpiece of details, with several heraldic symbols that date back to the latter half of the 14thcentury.

The young martyris portrayed as a princess, attired in clothes richly studded with jewels. We notice 3 shieldsbelow her bare shoulders: the first features a cross, perhaps the Savoy cross, and the viper of the Visconti family; the second presents the viper and lilies typical of the crown of France; and, at the centre of the neckline,a third shield has the image of the imperial eagle. Both the subject and the heraldic symbols associate the statue with the Viscontis, a family devoted to Agnes both for the victory of Desio―an important battle for the Viscontis that marked the beginning of the seignorywith the defeat of the Torriani― on her feast day, 21 January 1277, and for the marriage between GianGaleazzo and Isabella di Valois, Charles V’ssister. The marriage allowed the Lord of Milan to use the lilies of the French crown.

The Savoy cross combined with the viper refers to the close bond between families, sanctioned by the marriage between Galeazzo II, father of GianGaleazzo and Bianca of Savoy. The Imperial eagle, which indicates that the Viscontis supported the Ghibellines, could also indicate the role of GianGaleazzo as imperial vicar.

The lamb in the Saint’s arms refers to her name: Agnes, and to her martyrdom. She was killed by a sword slitting her throat, with the same method used to kill lambs.

Instead,the fashionable details and style of her dress and the particular effect of herflowing robes allow us to establish a probable date for the work. The cut of the dress with bare shoulders and the long clinging sleeves that reach half way down the hand, refer to the fashion of those years as witnessed by painted images, such as, for example, the fresco with the Mystical marriage of St. Catherine (today exhibited at the Brera Art Gallery) where the Saint’sclothes seem to have been made by the same seamstress.

St. Agnes’ hair falls in waves and curls, recalling the coat of a lamb, while the movement of the robes and the intense expression of her face trace the sculpture to the early phases of the Cathedral’sconstruction and decoration, when the sequence of female figures intended for the large windows of the transepts were designed. Actually, there is still some doubt whether the statue was initially conceived for the Duomo. Indeed, besides the dimensions, which differ from those of the other sculptures, and the wealth of symbols and finishes, it is not placed in a suitable position at the top of the large window. Why should all those courts of arms, which make it a “politically” important work, have been so carefully added to the statue when they would have passed unnoticed due to the height? Was it perhaps taken from one of the previous two cathedrals, from St. Tecla, which was demolished in 1462, or from Santa Maria Maggiore, enclosed within the perimeter of the new Church that was being built?