Reliquary of San Nazaro

Anonymous engravermiddle of 4th century

Museo Diocesano Milano

Museo Diocesano Milano
Milano, Italy


  • Title: Reliquary of San Nazaro
  • Date: middle of 4th century
  • Physical Location: Italy
  • Physical Dimensions: w20.5 x h20.5 x d20.6 cm
  • Engraver: Anonymous engraver
  • Description: This reliquary was used by Ambrose to contain the relics of some of the Apostles, which were sent from Rome to consecrate the Basilica Apostolorum (now the Basilica of St. Nazaro in Brolo), founded by the Bishop himself. The reliquary was found in 1578 under the main altar of the Basilica of St. Nazaro in Brolo by Archbishop Carlo Borromeo. The following year, it was again walled up in the church. It would be definitively taken out in 1894. In 1964, it was deposited in the Treasury of the Cathedral of Milan, and was then moved to the Diocesan Museum of Milan in 2004. The silver reliquary is decorated with high quality reliefs, the iconography of which is still partly unclear. The Madonna and Child are depicted on the front with two offering figures holding out empty plates. This image has been interpreted as the Offering of the Shepherds or the Adoration of the Magi. On the right side, there is the Judgment of Solomon, while on the opposite side there is another scene of Judgment that has been interpreted in many ways: as Joseph passing judgment on his brothers; the judgment of two Roman martyrs; or Daniel judging the elders who bore false witness against Susanna. On the final side, there are four separate young people, interpreted as perhaps the Three Jews saved by the Angel in the furnace, or as the Magi led by the angel away from Herod, or even as the shepherds receiving the announcement of the birth of Jesus. Finally, the cover contains a depiction of Christ enthroned among the apostles with jars and baskets at his feet, in remembrance of the miracles of the Wedding at Cana and the multiplication of the loaves, an explicit reference to the common theme of the revelation of Christ. On the bottom exterior of the reliquary there is an inscription. It is a testificatio, or certification of the reliquary, and it begins with an exclamation of joy. According to the paleographic analysis, scholars propose a date in the fourth century AD and hypothesize that the inscription could even have been penned by Ambrose himself. The complexity of the compositions and the classical naturalism, complemented by a clever use of gilding (of which there are still visible traces), and similarities with a small set of silverware of high artistic value, have led researchers to date the piece to the time of Valentinian and Theodosius II (mid-fourth century AD).
  • Type: Metalwork
  • Rights: © Archivio fotografico Museo Diocesano, Milano
  • Medium: Embossed silver with gilding

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