The remarkable, creepy stories that hide behind the pretty facades of Milan’s churches.
Milan is renowned for its stately historic churches, some of which date back more than 1,000 years. Tourists travel from across the world to admire the grandeur of their architecture and interior design, but many would be unaware of the dark tales that lurk within these religious buildings.
Controversial serpents, miraculous discoveries, Black Death chaos, desiccated human hearts, sex-crazed tyrants, walls made from human skulls, and chapels of the dead: these are some of the remarkable, creepy stories that hide behind the pretty facades of Milan’s churches.
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San Bernardino alle Ossa Church
It is simultaneously majestic and macabre. Tucked away in the corner of the San Bernardino alle Ossa Church is a square room, of which all four walls are decorated by thousands of human skulls. When a neighboring cemetery ran out of space, this part of the church was turned into an ossuary—a storage room for human skeletal remains. The skulls here are not placed haphazardly, but instead carefully arranged to create striking patterns, including the Catholic Cross.
San Fedele Church
Although Italy’s churches are serene places of quiet contemplation, it is not unusual for their walls to be decorated by macabre paintings or statues depicting violence or even evil forces. It was one such artwork that drew attention to the San Fedele Church.
After it was built in the mid-1500s, it was embellished with a provocative piece by the renowned painter Giovanni Ambrogio Figino. The Madonna was depicted crushing a snake’s head while holding a child in this controversial artwork, which has since been removed from the church after debate about its dark symbolism.
Santo Stefano Church
Galeazzo Maria Sforza was a tyrannical, corrupt, sex-crazed man. He also happened to be the Duke of Milan. Santo Stefano Church will forever be remembered as the place where he was assassinated in 1476, ending a life of controversy.
Known for his cruelty and philandering, Sforza earned few admirers during his reign. His enemies, by contrast, were many. One such group of men conspired to murder Sforza, ambushing him beneath the church’s portico where they stabbed him to death.
San Simpliciano Church
During the worst pandemic the world has ever witnessed—almost 700 years ago—Italy fell into chaos. In some Italian cities like Florence, up to two-thirds of their populations died from the bubonic plague, known as the Black Death.
In Milan, the death toll was immense. With cemeteries exceeding their capacity, dead bodies lay in homes and the streets. Corpses also began to pile up in the grounds of churches, like San Simpliciano. As Milan residents tried to maintain a semblance of normalcy, they gave funerals to plague victims at this 1,700-year-old church and it became famed for the stench of death.
San Carlo al Corso
In the middle of one of Milan’s richest shopping precincts, with streets lined with luxury brand stores, is an impressive church dedicated to an archbishop who’s forever linked to a deadly disaster. One of the patron saints of this city, St. Charles Borromeo was archbishop of Milan for 20 years, a reign that coincided with the catastrophic plague outbreak of 1576-78.
As the death count exploded, archbishop Borromeo reportedly went to countless hospitals and homes to bless the ill. So great were his efforts to comfort the people of Milan during the crisis that this epidemic was later referred to as the “Plague of St Charles.”
Santa Maria alla Porta
In a city that brims with important churches, the site of Santa Maria alla Porta was not overly significant until a miraculous discovery was reportedly made there about 900 years ago. When a previous version of this church was knocked down to make way for an updated structure, a number of extraordinary items were apparently found amid the rubble.
These included some of the clothes Jesus wore when he was buried, a segment of the Holy Cross, and a piece of fabric from a dress once donned by Mary. How these holy artifacts ended up there remains a mystery.
San Babila Church
Standing out in downtown Milan thanks to its distinctive, dark-red brick façade, 900-year-old San Babila Church hides the story of the first saint to ever have their corpse moved for religious reasons. Also known as “translation” in Christianity, this involves moving a sacred item from one place to a more important location.
In the case of San Babila, the sacred object that was transplanted there was a human body—that of St. Babylas, who had died centuries earlier. While this practice of moving saints’ burial places later became widespread, St. Babylas was the first example.
San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore Church
Among all of Milan’s gorgeous churches, none are more enchanting than San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore. Not because of its importance or incredible history, but because of the breathtaking beauty of its interior.
This is Milan’s version of the “Sistine Chapel,” with the walls and ceilings of the church so dense with complex murals that they’ve been credited with inspiring human visions of God. There are so many layers of design competing for your attention inside this glorious building that it can almost lull you into a trance.
Santa Maria del Carmine
While churches are peaceful, safe places that feel welcoming to visitors, few people enjoy hanging out in cemeteries. This is why the Santa Maria del Carmine Church has an unusual and slightly creepy atmosphere.
That is thanks to its Chapel of the Dead, which is lined with opulent tombs, making this building feel more like a graveyard than a church. These lavishly-decorated crypts contain the remains of important Milanese people, some of whom have been in place here for more than 500 years.
The Duomo Cathedral
The only church in Milan that competes with San Maurizio al Monastero Maggiore (on an aesthetic level) is the world-famous Duomo. Also known as the Milan Cathedral, it is so monumental and lavish in appearance that it took almost 600 years to complete after construction began in the late 1300s.
The Duomo is decorated by more than 3,000 hand-carved stone statues, some of which are decidedly creepy, depicting devils and other evil beings. Perhaps the eeriest of all these monuments is that of St. Bartholomew, who is depicted without skin, with his veins and organs on clear display.