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When plague hit Milan in the 16th century, they closed the churches and built outdoor altars

Saint Charles

Public Domain

V. M. Traverso - published on 04/24/20

"Plague crosses," offered as symbols of gratitude for God’s help during the pandemic, mark the spots where the outdoor altars once stood.

This week Italy registered the first decrease in coronavirus cases since the start of the pandemic in early March. Among some of the worst hit areas are the provinces of Milan and Bergamo, in the north of the country, which have a long history of pandemics. In the 1570s, a strong outbreak of plague hit Milan and surroundings, killing 30% of the population. The outbreak later took on the name of “Plague of St. Charles” in honor of St. Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, who played a crucial role in caring for the ill and their families. Unlike civil authorities, the archbishop did not leave the city but stayed behind to coordinate health care efforts.

San Carlo Borromeo in preghiera
Public Domain

St. Charles Borromeo, Archbishop of Milan, ordered churches to be closed for public health reasons but called for the construction of outdoor altars to allow believers a space for prayer.

He donated his clothes and tapestries to make clothes for the poor and the ill and organized processions to support the relatives of victims. In order to prevent the spread of the plague, which thrived in enclosed spaces, St. Charles called for the closure of all churches. But he thought of an ingenious method to allow believers a space for prayer. He ordered the construction of outdoor altar spaces outside each church or chapel. This way, believers could still access the altar without putting their health and that of others at risk.

When the pandemic came to an end, these altars were dismantled and believers went back to the habit of attending indoor Mass. But in their place, citizens erected “plague crosses” as symbols of gratitude for God’s help during the pandemic.

Today, some “plague crosses” are still in place in towns like Brugherio, located 12 miles north-east from Milan. One is kept in Piazza Roma, near the parish church. Built in white stone and topped with a copper cross, they are engraved with Latin inscriptions that attribute the end of the plague to Jesus’ compassion.

plague cross
Comune di Brugherio | CC BY-SA 4.0

This “plague cross” was built to remember the outdoor altars built by order of Saint Charles, Archbishop of Milan, during an outbreak of the plague in the 1560s.

A second “plague cross” is located near the cemetery in Viale Lombardia.A third cross is found at a crossroad named Torrazza and holds a tribute to a local family who rebuilt it after it was destroyed by a cyclone.

Erasmus 89 | CC BY-SA 4.0

A “Plague cross” built in Piazza Roma, Brugherio, near Milan.

And a massive statue of St. Charles, measuring 77 feet, was erected outside his birth town of Arona, just north of Milan.

Public Domain

A massive statue of Saint Charles, the Archbishop of Milan who played a vital role in the 16th century plague outbreak, was erected outside his birth town of Arona.

If it looks vaguely familiar, that’s because the designer of New York’s Statue of Liberty studied it to prepare his sketches for one of the world’s most iconic landmarks.

Church History
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