The Church of Santa Maria delle Grazie is a church in Milan, located in the square of the same name. The church, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is famous for housing Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, which is located in the refectory of the convent.
In 1460, the Congregation of Dominicans in Milan received a piece of land from Count Gaspare Vimercati. On this land, there was a small chapel dedicated to Santa Maria delle Grazie (Holy Mary of Grace), where the Dominicans decided to built a new church.
On September 10, 1463, the first stone was laid, and the work began under the supervision of the architect Guiniforte Solari. Thanks to the patronage of the Vimercati, the convent was completed in 1469.
Simultaneously with the construction of the convent, the building of the church began. The project was for a basilica with 3 naves, with ogival vaults and a gabled facade. Terracotta was used for the walls, while granite was used for the columns and capitals.
In 1492, the new Duke of Milan, Ludovico Sforza, also known as il Moro (the Moor), decided to rebuilt the cloister and the apse of the church. The apse is traditionally attributed to Donato Bramante, although documentary evidence is lacking.
Starting with 1539, the complex became the seat of the Court of the Inquisition, run by the Dominican fathers. For this, a new wing was added to the convent, demolished only in 1785, at the same time with the suppression of the Court by Maria Teresa of Austria.
At the end of the 19th century, the church was affected by an important restoration carried out under the direction of the architect Luca Beltrami. Inside the church, the original 15th-century frescoes were rediscovered. Outside, the apse was freed from the buildings that surrounded it, and the bell tower was rebuilt.
On the night of August 15, 1943, the Anglo-American bombers hit the church and the convent. The refectory was razed to the ground, but some walls were saved, including the one that holds the Last Supper. The post-war reconstruction was only partial.
The simple gabled facade of the church is divided into five sectors by six buttresses. The width of the facade is almost twice the height. The sober decoration consists only of molded terracotta reliefs that frame the lancet and the rose windows, and small arches that embelish the crowning.
Inside, the church has three wide aisles, separated by stone columns. The aisles are covered with cross vaults and flanked by rows of seven side chapels, illuminated by the central rose window and the two lancet windows.
The apse of Bramante consists of a cube of imposing size, at the center of which stands the hemispherical dome, connected by spandrels. The dome rests on a low drum, which has the appearance of a large loggia that runs along the entire circumference, which alternates open mullioned windows and blind double lancet windows. Above, it rises the lantern, in the form of a prism.
Although the refectory no longer belongs to the church, and it is now a state-owned museum, we cannot discuss about the Santa Maria delle Grazie without mentioning it. The walls and the vault of the refectory were entirely decorated with frescoes, but after the bombing of 1943, the only remaining walls are the one on the right, with Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper, and the one on the left, with Donato Montorfano’s Crucifixion.
The Last Supper, one of the world’s most recognizable paintings, measures 460 centimeters in height and 880 centimeters in lenght, and covers the right wall of the refectory. The work began around 1495 and was commissioned by Ludovico Sforza, Duke of Milan. The painting represents the scene of the Last Supper of Jesus with his apostles, as it is told in the Gospel of John.
Dated back to 1495, the Crucifixion, located on the left wall of the refectory, is the most important work of the Milanese painter Donato Montorfano.
HOW TO GET THERE
The closest Metro station is Conciliazione, located about 350 meters away, on the Metro Line 1. The closest tram stop is Santa Maria delle Grazie, located in front of the church, on the tram Line 16.