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  • Writer's pictureGeorgiana Tufeanu

Duomo Cathedral

Updated: Aug 28, 2021

If we imagine the city of Milan like a museum, Duomo Cathedral would be its masterpiece.

You cannot miss it, as in Milan all streets lead to its majestic symbol. Every single time I see it even after years of living in this city, I feel in love with it.

You may know how it looks like, but you may not know the most impressive part of it: its story and what is kept there.

The fifth largest Christian church in the world holds many important paintings, statues and even the remains of Saint Carlo. But the most important relic is one of the nails of Jesus’ Crucifixion!

Shining brightly, Madonnina statue is located on the tallest spire of the Cathedral. Being visible from far away, it becomes a landmark that people can use to orientate themselves towards Duomo.

Let’s explore together Milan’s most famous sanctuary. It’s yet another place where you can pray, feel closer to God and let yourself be transformed by the experience.

We will explore:

1. Architectural Identity: why you should visit

2. History

3. Art and curiosities

Architectural Identity - why you should visit


Exterior, Madonnina & Terrace

Architectural style: Gothic, Neoclassical, Neo-Gothic, Italian Gothic (it took 646 years to construct completely)

Architects: Bramante, Giulio Romano, Pellegrino Tibaldi

Patron Saint: Virgin Mary


It’s impossible not to feel overwhelmed when you enter Duomo. Majestic, yet welcoming, the large space with a Latin cross plan will invite you slowly to discover it. Built in “roman” Renaissance style, this is the place you can now stay in silence and contemplate the mystery of the Infinite One.

The nave is very large and will take your sight directly to the main, wonderful altar. Notice on top of the pillars the many Saints and martyrs that will help you with your prayers. Don’t forget to take memorable pictures (it’s a lifetime opportunity!). But remember to pay the tax for that: find here all the information about the tickets and prices - avoid the crowds by booking in advance!

“You will find three chapels at the end of each transept where you can as well take a moment to admire the wonderful details of marble and statues. Impressive collection of work of art can be admired here: the Medeghino Renaissance sculpture, the Trivulzio Candelabrum – masterpiece goldsmith’s work (made of bronze and precious stones) or the statue of St. Bartholomew.” [1]

In the north transept you will notice the wonderful Altar of the Virgin of the Tree. Here, Duomo offers you an opportunity to see the life of Virgin Mary carved in alto-relievo. You can take the chance to reflect upon the represented events, and also talk with her, ask her questions or simply make a prayer.

You will probably notice the stained glass windows. The oldest windows are from the 15th and 16th Century.

You can admire and think about the scenes from the Old and New Testament, as well as from the life of Virgin Mary and the Saints.

The Presbytery is in fact the place that is more impressive than anything else. Just standing in front of it will give you that sense of grandeur, of closeness with the mystery of faith and you can let yourself immerge in front of it.

The Crucifix on top of the Altar watches over the entire cathedral and you can have a moment just praying in front of it.


Duomo’s façade is one of Milan’s icons and depicted multiple times when trying to describe the city. But it didn’t look like this before. Nowadays cathedral consists in the union of two previous basilicas: Santa Maria Maggiore and Santa Tecla, which you can still visit in the archaeological area.

“The façade is enriched by large Neo-Classic statues of the prophets and the apostles. Two of the lower large windows… were inspired by the Roman school in the 16th Century and were created by Fabio Mangone and Francesco Maria Ricchino. The upper part of the façade, in Gothic style is the work of Carlo Amati and Giuseppe Zanoja.” [1]

When you get right in front of the main bronze door, you will notice many sculptures and details of Biblical episodes.

You will also notice that on the left side of the door, the leg of one of the characters is clearly more polished than the rest of the door.

This is due to the tradition of touching that character in hope or receiving good luck, but is just a superstition.

MADONNINA & the Terrace

Madonnina statue is wonderful, standing on top of the tallest spire, watching over the

city. It is more than 4 meters tall, and built of gilded copper laminate. It was modeled by Giuseppe Perego and crafted by the goldsmith Giuseppe Bini in 1774.

Madonnina statue brings Duomo’s height to an impressive 108.5 meters.

“The main features of the sides are the projecting counter-forts crowned by pinnacles, the former alternate with the narrow ogival windows of the sides. Flying buttresses create a breathtaking effect. The apse has a powerful polygonal shape, decorated with sculpture and marble details. In the large central window, the radiant flaming sun represents Jesus Christ, the “Sun of Justice”. [1]

The 150 gargoyles are architectural elements typical of the Gothic style.

Walking round the sides of the Duomo from façade to the apse, you can glimpse innumerable statues that show us how art of sculpture evolved over the course of centuries.

The terrace and the Lantern consist of a system of accessible terraces connected with walkways and stairs.

You can enjoy a fantastic panoramic view of the Alps if the sky is clear.

The roof is dominated by the great octagonal lantern, created at the end of the 15th Century by Giovanni Antonio Amadeo and Gian Giacomo Dolcebuono. It is surmounted by the Great Spire, the work of Francesco Croce in 1769, topped by the famous Madonnina statue. [1]

There is one more fascinating aspect of the cathedral: 135 spires – support 135 saints that you will be able to observe closer if you go on the terrace.


To represent the flourishing Milan, Archbishop Antonio da Saluzzo proposed the idea of the cathedral in the end of the 14th Century. So in 1386 the city mobilized in order to start the construction.

Gian Galeano Visconti was the one choosing the modern style of the building – International Gothic and Lombard Romanesque and the choice of using Candoglia marble.

181 years later, Archbishop Carlo Borromeo proposed some changes, choosing the Renaissance “Roman” style, transforming the entire presbytery, with the purpose of exalting the Eucharist. Many new elements appeared: the ciborium, wooden choir, ambulatory, side altars and the crypt.

In the 19th Century, Napoleon Bonaparte was crowned here as King of Italy. With his enforcement, the façade was completed in the 1813 by the architects Giuseppe Zanoia and Carlo Amati in neo-Gothic style. [1]

Art and curiosities

Expect a lot! Having such a high Catholic and historic importance for the city, there are many things you shouldn’t miss. Let’s discover some of the most important.

The Holy Nail

Yes, that’s right! In Duomo there is a relic from the Cross of Christ. If you don’t know this, you can easily miss it. It is kept in a tabernacle in the vault above the choir. During the Exaltation of the Cross Feast, the Archbishop removes the relic from its shrine and takes it to the main altar where it remains exposed for three days.

The Helping of the Virgin fresco

As the cathedral is dedicated to Virgin Mary, there are many works of art dedicated to her. In the entrance at the left, a wonderful frescoed effigy of the Virgin. It’s called the Helping of the Virgin and is the place where you can light up a candle and contemplate. Think about all the reasons that brought you here, and let yourself be immersed in prayer.

Don’t forget to visit the Crypt and the Scurolo di San Carlo

To the right of the main altar there's the entrance to a Crypt, designed by Tibaldi, where many relics of saints and martyrs are stored.

Find the relic of Saint Carlo in the Scurolo, which is an underground chapel. The urn is made of crystal and silver and was designed by Giovanni Battista Crepi.

The Choir

The choir is composed by a double row of 71 wooden panels. Take a moment to appreciate the stories that they tell, about the lives of Saint Ambrose, the Martyred Saints or Sainted Bishops of Milan. Let this be your History and spiritual lesson for the day, or simply admire the wonderful work of art.

Depending of the time of the year, the panels change. During the Fest of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, they will tell the Stories of the Cross and the Holy Nail will be hung in a tabernacle above the choir.

There are many other beautiful points of interest either on the inside or outside the cathedral. For example, the stained glass windows are a work of art, especially when they are lit by the sunlight.

You will be able to see other altars made of spectacular marble and composed with many sculptures like the St. Giovanni Bono, the Statue of Saint Bartholomew or an elaborate corbel for the monument to Pope Martino V.

Even the floors are extremely beautiful: Designed by Tibaldi himself, they are made of pink-white Candoglia marble and black marble from Varenna and red marble from Arzo.


[1] Carradori, G. and Perathoner, A. (2011) The Duomo Cathedral of Milan: Nous (Stezzano).

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