Dedication of the Duomo and Consecration of the altar
In ancient times, Milan had two cathedrals: one called Santa Maria Maggiore which stood on the site of the present Duomo, the other dedicated to Santa Tecla which occupied the area of present cathedral square. The history of these holy buildings is united by a single constant date: the third Sunday in October. Indeed, in the 5th century, the Cathedral of Santa Tecla was destroyed by the barbarians led by Attila; Bishop Eusebius took charge of the rebuilding and on the third Sunday of October in 453 solemnly consecrated it.
From then onwards this date became traditional for the annual commemoration of the dedication of the Cathedral in Milan. In fact, when the Cathedral of Santa Maria Maggiore was consecrated in 836, the date chosen was 15 October, which in that year fell on the third Sunday of the month. The date of the third Sunday in October became so deeply rooted in Ambrosian liturgical tradition that, when Pope Martin V, on his return journey from the Council of Constance in 1418, was invited to consecrate the high altar in the new Duomo, built on the site where Santa Maria Maggiore previously stood, the date chosen for the ceremony was again the third Sunday in October, which fell that year on the 16th. Similarly, St. Carlo Borromeo consecrated the present Duomo on 20 October 1577, which was again the third Sunday of the month. When, at the end of the major static restoration work involving the pillars of the dome, it was decided to restore the presbytery too repositioning the ancient altar (already consecrated by Pope Martin V) according to the liturgical laws of the Vatican II Council, once again the ancient Milanese tradition was respected.
The new presbytery was inaugurated on 23 March 1986, Palm Sunday, but the high altar was consecrated by Cardinal Carlo Maria Martini on 19 October, the third Sunday of the month, the feast of the dedication of the Cathedral of Milan since the 5th century. Another detail must also be underlined: the inauguration of the renovated Duomo in 1986 was celebrated during the jubilee year of the sixth centenary of the foundation of the Duomo itself: in fact, according to tradition, its construction began in 1386.
Procession of the Santa Idea
A highly valued bas-relief, possibly dating from the end of the 11th century, originally in the Church of Santa Maria Beltrade, now in the Archaeological Museum in the Castello Sforzesco, permits us to reconstruct the Marian Procession on 2 February, the feast of the Presentation of Jesus at the Temple (known in folk tradition as Candlemas), as it took place in the Middle Ages: it shows two priests carrying a cusped effigy of the Virgin Mary, a cleric with the stational cross, a deacon bearing the evangeliary, the archbishop with mitre and pastoral staff (and this is perhaps one of the first iconographic documentations on episcopal insignia) and lastly the cathedral clergy with lighted candles.
The word “Idea” appears beneath the effigy of the Virgin, and in fact the procession known as the Idea is still celebrated to this day on 2 February each year in the Duomo: the “Idea” is a cusped panel painting depicting on one side the presentation of Jesus in the Temple, with Mary and Simeon the Elder and the prophetess Anna (precisely the protagonists of the gospel proclaimed in the feast of 2 February), while on the other it shows a throned Virgin and Child. It is the work of Michelino da Besozzo and is dated 1417. The procession starts from the Madonna dell’Albero altar, where the candles distributed to the canons and to the faithful are blessed; a large lighted candle is also placed on the top of cusp of the Idea, a tradition surviving from a very ancient custom, that of decorating the cross or holy images with lighted candles, as a sign of celebration and honour.
During the procession along the aisles of the Duomo towards the high altar the Idea is carried on the shoulders of two deacons on a special litter, and then remains on show for veneration by the faithful for the whole feast day. There has been much discussion between scholars on the origin of the name Idea given to this image of Mary. Some hold that it derives directly from the pagan cult of Magna Mater Idea, that is Cybele, mother of the gods, in honour of whom processions were held in ancient times to plead for the fertility of the land: if this is true, it would seem to be a case of incorporation of ancient pagan cults into Christianity, by replacing the name of Cybele, referred to by the appellation Idea and thought to be the mother of the gods, with the true Idea, the Mother of God, the Holy Virgin Mary. Other scholars do not consider this explanation to be convincing and suggest interpreting the term Idea in its Greek entymological definition: simply as equal to “image”.
A large Easter candle burns beside the altar in every church at Eastertide and this, especially in popular but also liturgical tradition, is considered to be a symbol of the resurrected Christ. In the Duomo, on the contrary, the paschal candle is placed on a large suspended 15th century candelabrum and, since the 16th century, during the solemn Ascension Day mass, it is the focus of a very special and moving ceremony. During this celebration, while the deacon reads the Gospel, the great candelabrum with the lighted candle is made to rise slowly towards the roof of the cathedral, almost as if to allegorically reproduce the mystery of the Ascension.
Feast of the Patron Saint - 8 September
The present Duomo is dedicated to the birth of Mary, as the simple and plain words, “Mariae Nascenti”, of the dedication on the facade clearly state, because the Cathedral Church is dedication to St. Mary Nascent. The feast of the patron saint of the Duomo falls on 8 September each year, and is celebrated by a solemn Pontifical Mass officiated by the Archbishop: qualified representatives of the clergy and of the laity of the Ambrosian Church are invited to this ceremony because, by recent tradition, the Archbishop presents the pastoral plan to the diocese for the new social year which begins in the months of September and October when full pastoral activity resumes. By an even more recent tradition, again during this celebration, the ceremony is held for admission of seminarians who have completed their theological studies as candidates for holy orders.
Ceremony of the Nivola and Holy Nail
The most celebrated relic that is to this day still preserved in the Duomo is one of the nails of Christ's cross, shaped into the form of a horse's bit and kept in a tabernacle placed on the top of the internal vaulting of the Cathedral, in a prominent position above the presbytery. St. Ambrose already told us about this relic and its uninterrupted presence in Milan's Cathedral is documented from the end of the 14th century to the present day. Devotion to the holy nail, which has never ceased amongst the people of Milan, was fostered above all by San Carlo Borromeo, who carried the precious relic in procession through the streets of Milan during the plague of 1576 and inaugurated the ceremony that continues to be practised to this day. In fact, he decreed that each year on 3 May, feast of the Finding of the Holy Cross in the old liturgical calendar, the procession with the Holy Nail should be repeated.
The most fascinating moment of the service, however, was the taking down of the relic, with the ceremony of the nivola: this name, deriving from Milanese dialect, indicates a special type of lift, in the form of a cloud decorated with painted canvases and drapery, the only means by which it is possible to reach the tabernacle of the holy nail. Again using the nivola, the precious relic was put back in its tabernacle at the end of the celebrations which lasted until 5 May.
With the new liturgical regulations, the celebrations honouring the holy nail have been revived and are now held on 14 September, on the feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. On that occasion, at the beginning of vespers, the archbishop rises on the nivola to take down the reliquary containing the precious relic, which is then shown to the people inserted into a large gilded wooden cross. The procession, which at the time of San Carlo, went from the Duomo to the church of the Holy Sepulchre, now takes place only within the Cathedral and ends with the solemn benediction given to the large number of faithful who still attend this traditional ceremony full of atmosphere.
Officiation and Daily Mass
Each day the canons of the Duomo gather in the winter choir for the Eucharistic celebrations and for the Officiation or Liturgy of the Hours. Indeed, while it is true that the Duomo is the centre of the liturgical life of the whole diocese, it is only right that the first duty of the clergy of the Cathedral should be that of daily liturgical prayer celebrated in the name of and for the whole Ambrosian Church. Alongside this essential duty, the Chapter of the Canons of the Duomo has always had another no less important function for the preservation of the traditions of the Milanese Church: the task of acting as guardian and defender of the Ambrosian rite precisely in the daily celebration of the sacrificium eucharisticum and the sacrificium laudis.
2) Beatifications in the Duomo
On Sunday 30 April 2006 for the first time in history a beatification rite took place in Milan's Cathedral, that of Don Luigi Monza and Mons. Luigi Biraghi.. Archbishop Dionigi Tettamanzi celebrated Holy Mass and the Prefect of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, Cardinal Josè Saraiva Martins, pronounced the beatification formula by concession of Pope Benedict XVI.
Monsignor Luigi Biraghi (1801 – 1879) was the director of the Biblioteca Ambrosiana and founder of the Institute of the Sisters of St. Marcelline. Don Luigi Monza (1898 – 1954) was the founder of the Institute of the Little Apostles of Charity.