The Bronze Snake of Moses in the Basilica of Sant'Ambrogio, Milan

The Basilica of Saint Ambrose in Milan is surely one of the most interesting and spectacular churches of that venerable primatial See. It is filled with numerous treasures, not least of which the relics of St. Ambrose himself, located in the crypt church beneath the high altar, and precious mosaics from the earlier Christian period.  However, there is another, rather peculiar treasure located within this basilica that you might well miss. Looking from the narthex toward the high altar, perched upon an ancient Roman column, sits a bronze snake -- and directly across from it on the other side of the nave sits a bronze cross perched on another column. 

What is this snake? Tradition would have it that this is the very same bronze snake that was erected by Moses in the desert to protect and heal the Israelites (Numbers 21:6-9).

The bronze serpent as depicted by Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel

This snake is said to have been brought to Milan from Constantinople around the year 1000, a gift of the Byzantine emperor Basil II to the Holy Roman Emperor, Otto II.

As the erection of this column apparently resulted in some popular superstitions, the second column, with a bronze Cross, was erected as a corrective by the Archbishop Arnolfo who had also erected the snake in the basilica. 

By way of one other interesting side note, tradition holds that the snake will come to life and make its way back to the Valley of Jehoshaphat at the time of the apocalypse.  For now, however, it has made its home for more than a millennium at this spectacular basilica.

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