The Duomo of Milan and the poor

Milan’s cathedral, or Duomo, is a grand sight. It is a shining white, marble beacon of Gothic beauty in a foggy, greyish-hued city. Within, it is filled with beautiful works of art, carvings in stone and wood, stained glass, paintings on canvas hung alongside the nave. A nail from the True Cross is in the Duomo’s cross high above.

The place fills one with wonder. The Gothic nature of much of the space persistently draws the eyes upward, and the grace of so much of the Roman-style Renaissance architecture keeps the observer in good cheer.

The worship is beautiful in the Latin-Italian modernish Ambrosian rite, with incense, robes, choir, acolytes, deacons, priests, bishops. The devotion of the faithful lighting candles and kneeling in prayer at side altars make one wish more Protestants were so obviously pious — and that more Catholics were as well!

This building — which is surely the largest place I have ever been barring the Skydome or Air Canada Centre, with its expansive floor below and high vaults above — was begun in 1387. Santa Maria Maggiore, the old Romanesque cathedral, was demolished, though the original facade was initially incorporated in the new structure, and a new, glorious building was begun. The final touches on this building, primarily on its Neo-Gothic (Gothic Revival?) facade were added in the 19th century.

A lot of beauty. If you’re the sort of person who is drawn to the worship of God through the arts and through architecture, this is one of your places.

But a lot of money, right?

People often complain about places like this. They say that the Church wasted so much of its money building huge cathedrals when it could have been feeding the poor. If you go to the Basilica Sant’Ambrogio here, you do wonder a little at how St. Ambrose, famous for melting the Milanese church’s silver to redeem Christian slaves, would feel about the number of gold and silver vessels when there are hungry mouths abroad in the streets of Mediolanum to this day.

In response, people usually point out that the Church has fed many poor, built many hospitals, trained many jobless people, and so forth, marching through history. How many hospitals are named St. Joseph’s? Or what about the nuns a friend of mine volunteers with, giving food and friendship to the homeless of Edinburgh?

I would like to point out something else.

The Duomo in Milan did help the poor. And I don’t mean by providing them with the spiritual benefit of so lovely a building. I mean by providing them with what poor people need most: good, solid work.

Work for: the quarrymen who got the marble out of the earth; the people who dug the canals and worked on the canals and maintained them; the people who shipped the marble; the masons who shaped the marble and put it into place; the architects who designed the structure; the artists who made statues, paintings, stained glass; silversmiths who made chalices and patens and processional crosses; ditto goldsmiths; beekeepers who made beeswax for the candles; the people involved in linen production; and all the other varieties of tradespeople involved in the building of a mediaeval/Renaissance/Baroque/19th-century cathedral.

The Duomo provided them with work. Those men and women who work at maintaining and restoring the Duomo through the Veneranda Fabbrica del Duomo di Milano also get work from the Duomo. The Duomo draws visitors to Milan, thus making hundreds of businesses, small and large, succeed, producing many jobs, skilled and unskilled. And when these businesses and jobs succeed, so do others.

So, yes, the Duomo cost a lot of money. But without it, there would have been more poor folk for the past 600 years than otherwise.


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