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The little-known “Sistine Chapel” of Milan

St-Luke-by-Vincenzo-Foppa

Cenz07 | Shutterstock (Cropped)

V. M. Traverso - published on 09/19/23

The Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore hosts a stunning collection of Renaissance-era frescoes, Catholic history, and a whole lot more.

Catholic travelers visiting Milan, Italy, usually make sure not to miss the stunning 14th-century Gothic cathedral, the Duomo; the Last Supper, hosted inside the church of Santa Maria delle Grazie; or the ruins of the baptistry where St. Augustine was famously baptized in 387. Many people may not know, however, of a hidden gem lying in plain sight in what is considered by art historians Milan’s most beautiful church. 

Facciata di San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore a Milano
Not many people know that inside the unassuming Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore lies one of Milan’s most beautiful collections of Renaissance frescoes.

From the outside, the 16th-century Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore, found on the premises of a former female Benedictine monastery, may look like yet another pretty but fairly standard Milanese church. This perception changes once you make your way past the entrance. Inside, you will be hit by wonder at the sight of the stunning decorations of this under-the-radar church.

Nun's Hall of the Church of St. Maurice of the Monastery, Milan
Once you make your way past the entrance you will be hit by wonder at the sight of the stunning decorations of this under-the-radar church.

The church is structured in two areas, the chamber of the faithful, where Mass was attended by the public, and the chamber of the nuns, where cloistered nuns would attend liturgy. Both churches are structured around a single vaulted nave. They both contain stunning frescoes, mosaics and gilded decorations, but it is perhaps the room of the nuns that steals the visitor’s heart.

San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore
A detail of the vaulted ceiling of the chamber of the nuns in Milan’s Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore.

Here, a cycle of frescoes by Renaissance painter Bernardino Luini presents images of St. Catherine, St. Agatha, the Carrying of the Cross, and the Marriage at Cana. On the vault, a stunning fresco whose vibrant colors are similar to those of UNESCO World Heritage Site Scrovegni’s Chapel in Padua, depicts a bright blue starry sky with God, the Evangelists and the angels. 

San Maurizio, Milan, Lombardy, Italy
A stunning fresco in the chamber of the nuns at San Maurizio al Monastero church depicts a bright blue starry sky with God, the Evangelists and the angels.

The frescoes in the chamber of faithful depict various subjects of the Catholic iconographic tradition, including the life of St. Maurizio by Bernardino Luini and an Adoration of the Magi by Mannerist painter Antonio Campi.

St. Luke, from fresco by Vincenzo Foppa
A depiction of Saint Luke in one of the frescoes decorating the interiors of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore.

The chapel of the nuns also hosts a perfectly preserved 16th-century organ crafted by Gian Giacomo Anteganti with decorations from Francesco Medici da Seregno. The organ is still in use today, some 500 years after its creation. 

Organ of the Nun's Hall of the Church of St. Maurice of the Monastery, Milan, Province of Milan
The chapel of the nuns inside the Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore hosts a perfectly preserved 16th-century organ.

These impressive works of art are located in what is known to locals as “the Sistine Chapel of Milan.” They were commissioned by a couple belonging to Milan’s ruling class, Ippolita Sforza and Alessandro Bentivoglio, whose daughter was a nun at the convent. 

Today, the Church of San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore is mostly used for music concerts and for Mass celebrated according to the Byzantine rite. Milan’s “Sistine Chapel” is open to visitors for free from Wednesday to Sunday between 10:00 a.m. and 5:00 p.m. Last entrance at 5:00 p.m.

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ArtCatholicItalyTravel
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