The Basilica of Great Saint Lawrence is one of the most important churches in the world you’ve never heard of. It sits across what is now a plaza, but was once crowded with houses, from the Colonnade of St. Lawrence.
It was once surrounded by houses and even a river and port on the other side, but after the bombing of World War II, the land was cleared and it is now a park. The dome is newer than the original Ambrosian Era/Late Roman Imperial church, whose bell towers can be seen poking out from the later additions. The original dome collapsed.
The ancient masonry holds up the restoration after 1573, and creates a fascinating mix of the ancient and the late Renaissance.
I was intrigued by a two Euro admission fee to a chapel to the south, where I was treated to some extremely old Paleo-Christian frescoes, so old they are more Roman than anything else.
These frescoes below, from the 4th Century, may be some of the oldest, and even commissioned by a Roman emperor.
This beautiful but damaged fresco shows the divots underneath the thin plaster skin that would have helped the fresco hold onto the surface of the half dome.
The mosaic of Christ the Lawgiver from the 4th Century is also one of the oldest Roman Christian works of art in the world.
At this point, I thought, well, that is nice and all, and was probably worth the two Euros, but then a group of women came in behind me, and walked behind this giant sarcophagus (the chapel probably served as an imperial mausoleum at one point), and after five minutes, had still not come back from around the other side.
Finding it strange that there could be anything that amazing hiding in such a small space on the other side of the sarcophagus, I went to investigate, and discovered a staircase leading down into the foundations of the building.
Lo and behold, archaeologists had discovered that Roman emperors, after banning gladiatorial games due to their unchristian content, had pulled down ancient Mediolanum’s amphitheater (its foundations are exposed in a park nearby), and reused the spolia as the foundations of the new Christian church going up just inside the city walls.
If you look closely, you can see how the builders of the chapel carefully fit together the marble cornices of the amphitheater to create the foundation. Was it really easier to do it this way? Yes and no, but in all honesty, the symbolism was the most important aspect of this labor.
Always remember to go check to see what is behind that corner in life.