Philip III of Spain, Carlo Borromeo, and the Politics of Canonization

Giles Knox

Canonized in 1610, San Carlo Borromeo was the first in a long series of Counter-Reformation saints. His life had been filled with political controversy, much of it centered on his persistent advocacy for the rights of the local, Milanese church. In this he came into frequent and serious conflict with the Spanish governors of the city. It comes as a surprise, therefore, that king Philip III of Spain was such an active promoter of Carlo’s subsequent canonization. He did this through political maneuverings, but also through the commissioning of lavish decorations for the new saint’s tomb in Milan cathedral. In the process, his potentially divisive cult was safely contained and S. Carlo was re-made into a symbolic supporter of Spanish secular dominion in the north of Italy.


Martin Luther and the other Protestant reformers were extremely critical of the cult of the saints.  Not only were saints often false, according to these reformers, they invited superstition and detracted from the centrality of the relationship between mankind and God.  The Roman Church responded to this critique by steadfastly reaffirming the cult of the saints at the Council of Trent, but also by tightening controls so that false cults would be suppressed.  In other words, the Church realized there was some merit to the Protestant claims – it needed to clean up its act.  That the criticism had struck home is made clear by the paucity of saints canonized during the sixteenth century.  In fact, for the sixty-five years following 1523 the Church canonized not a single saint.

In many ways, San Carlo Borromeo was a kind of test case for a revived, but carefully controlled cult of the saints.  Canonized in 1610, he was the first in a long series of saints associated with the reforms of the Counter-Reformation, including luminaries such as Filippo Neri, Francis Xavier, Ignatius Loyola, and Teresa of Avila, all canonized later in the seventeenth century.  Archbishop of Milan from 1560 until his premature death in 1584, Borromeo had introduced a series of sweeping changes to religious life in the diocese.  In the documents and decorations associated with his canonization this exemplary life was exhaustively rehearsed.   He was cast as a model of truly universal importance and relevance.  His life, however, had also been filled with political controversy, much of it centered on his persistent advocacy for the rights of the local church.  In this he came into frequent and serious conflict with the Spanish governors of the city.  Spain had ruled Milan and its territory since 1535.

Borromeo’s goal as archbishop of Milan was to reform the diocese from the ground up.  To carry this out he needed broad jurisdictional autonomy, and he needed the ability to carry through, with force if necessary, the sentences of the ecclesiastical court.[1]  To effect this goal he gathered around him his own personal armed body, the so-called famiglia armata.  He employed these retainers to arrest offenders, and to carry out sentences. Understandably, the secular authorities bridled at what they considered to be an abuse of church power.  Things came to head in 1567 when the city’s Capitano di Giustizia, the lead official within the secular justice arm, told Borromeo to stop arresting members of the laity. Borromeo responded by bringing him before the ecclesiastical court.  The Senate stepped in and defended the Capitano, denying to Borromeo the right to arrest the laity.  Borromeo turned to the pope and was able to garner his support.  Then, an official of the famiglia armata was arrested by secular justice officials for "illegal carrying of a weapon." Borromeo called the Capitano di Giustizia before him the very same day, under pain of excommunication.  He extended the threat to the whole senate as well.  None of them appeared; all were excommunicated.

            The dispute was eventually settled, but not before the king of Spain, Philip II, was compelled to send an ambassador to Rome to seek a compromise.  The details of this need not concern us here.  The point I want to make is that these disputes made Carlo Borromeo a thorn in the side of the Spanish king.  It comes as some surprise, therefore, that Philip II’s successor, Philip III, was such an active promoter of Carlo’s subsequent canonization.  The strangeness of this outlook was not lost on contemporaries.  In Giovanni Pietro Giussano’s Life of S. Carlo Borromeo published in 1610 the papal nuncio in Madrid is quoted as having been incredulous at Philip II’s positive attitude towards his troublesome vassal.  Noting that the king had a portrait of Carlo Borromeo in his audience chamber, a fact mentioned by many authors, the nuncio is puzzled.  Why, given the many “indignations [disgusti] and differences of opinion between him [meaning Carlo] and the royal ministers in Milan” should Philip have his portrait on the wall of such an important room?  “The king responded to the nuncio with a happy expression that he considered him a holy man, and that it would be a great favor from God if in all the cities of his realm there were similar bishops.”[2]  According to Giussano, Philip III simply inherited this positive viewpoint from his father.

            In the years around the canonization in 1610 there was a veritable industry devoted to publishing about the new saint.  In 1614, Marco Aurelio Grattarola published a detailed, almost journalistic account of the maneuverings that led up to Carlo’s canonization.  He describes how it had first been proposed by a Milanese body in 1601, a group to which Grattarola himself belonged.  Their reasoning was simple:  “the devotion, the observance, and the veneration towards him, by almost all peoples, but most of all by the Milanese, was always very great while he lived, and greater still after his death.  For this reason many people visit his tomb, frequently and with great piety.”[3]  Soon, miracles began to occur there, showing, according to Grattarola, that this plan was divinely sanctioned.  Not surprisingly, the tomb was located in Milan Cathedral, “by order of the saint himself at the feet of the first steps that rise to the choir – the most humble and frequented location of the church.”  Early on, it was a simple affair “without covering or any ornamentation, with a simple slab of marble on top.”[4]

            Attesting to the popularity of the tomb is a rather unusual publication authored by Cesare Bonino, a Milanese cleric who ministered to the poor and sick.  Very few copies of this slender volume have survived, and the ones that do suggest it was published in two versions, one from before 1610 that makes reference only to the life of Carlo, and one from 1610 itself that also includes the miracles of the newly canonized saint.[5]  Both versions illustrate the popular devotion centered around the tomb.  The print of the tomb is rather crude, but the position of the tomb in the cathedral is very carefully established as in the nave immediately beneath the steps leading to the high altar (fig. 1).  Below appear two inscriptions, one in Latin and the other in the vernacular.  Translated, they read “To his sepulcher the faithful brought many silver votives of great value, as well as alms, and they called upon him in their prayers and through him obtained many favors from God.”

fig. 1, The tomb of S. Carlo Borromeo, from Cesare Bonino, Nonnulla Praeclara Gesta B. Caroli Borrom. S. R. E. Car. Tit. S. Praxedis Archiepis. Mediolani, Milan, 1610


Miracles also began to occur at the tomb itself, as shown in several other prints from the later version of Bonino’s volume (fig. 2).  “For six years Marta de Vighi suffered from pain in her eyes and after many treatments became blind.  Hearing of the great miracles of the saint, and after having seen him in her dreams, she vowed to visit his tomb.”  She was led there and after kissing the tomb and touching it with her eyes she regained her sight.  In case we should have wondered where the tomb was located, the print maker has chosen to show the exterior of Milan cathedral, with its distinctive mid-fourteenth-century façade.

fig. 2, Miracle of Marta de Vighi, from Cesare Bonino, Nonnulla Praeclara Gesta B. Caroli Borrom. S. R. E. Car. Tit. S. Praxedis Archiepis. Mediolani, Milan, 1610


            Back inside the cathedral we see the noble Giovanni Giacomo Lomazzo kneeling just to the left of the tomb (fig. 3).  As the inscription describes, he has suffered in his legs for five years, and the ailment was considered incurable.  He went to the tomb of Carlo Borromeo, asked for his help, and upon hearing the Mass said within the main body of the church, was cured and able to walk home unassisted.

fig. 3, Miracle of Giovanni Giacomo Lomazzo, from Cesare Bonino, Nonnulla Praeclara Gesta B. Caroli Borrom. S. R. E. Car. Tit. S. Praxedis Archiepis. Mediolani, Milan, 1610


            Outside the cathedral entrance, flanked by beggars, we see Margarita de Monti (fig. 4).  She had suffered for six years with feet that were turned in the wrong direction. Her mother took her to the tomb of Carlo Borromeo and on the first visit one of her feet was turned to point forward.  A second visit was required to correct the other foot.  Here we see the young Margarita returning for a third visit with an offering of two silver feet to fulfill her vow to the saint.

fig. 4, Miracle of Margarita de Monti, from Cesare Bonino, Nonnulla Praeclara Gesta B. Caroli Borrom. S. R. E. Car. Tit. S. Praxedis Archiepis. Mediolani, Milan, 1610


            The Cappuchin friar Sebastiano da Piacenza had suffered for twenty-four years from an illness doctors could not identify (fig. 5).  Having heard about the miracles happening around the tomb of Carlo Borromeo he traveled there and was cured.

fig. 5, Miracle of Sebastiano da Piacenza


            Finally, we have Giovanna di Maroni, a child born with “great defects in the legs, such that even as a four year old she was unable to stand and walked on her behind (fig. 6).  Her mother had her carried to tomb of the saint and together they offered a silk shirt, and having made a vow to the saint the daughter stood up and was healthy.”

fig. 6, Miracle of Giovanna di Moroni, from Cesare Bonino, Nonnulla Praeclara Gesta B. Caroli Borrom. S. R. E. Car. Tit. S. Praxedis Archiepis. Mediolani, Milan, 1610


            Many other miracles occurred away from the tomb, and clearly the officially sanctioned miracles as represented in Bonino were assembled to reflect both the universality of S. Carlo’s sanctity and its location in a particular place.  Those centered on the tomb explicitly localized the cult in Milan, with an emphasis on the cathedral, long a monument not just associated with Milanese ecclesiastical grandeur, but with its political standing as well.  According to local tradition, the present building had been founded by Gian Galeazzo Visconti in the late fourteenth century, and over the years it had come to assume the status as a kind of state basilica.[6]   During his lifetime, however, Carlo had been tireless in his efforts to rid the cathedral of anything that smacked of state glory.  He assiduously removed coats of arms and any sign of secular authority.  Writing in the 1640s, Paolo Morigia describes how when the new archbishop celebrated his first provincial council “he ordered taken down all the deposits and coffins that were high up between the columns above the choir.  In these rested bodies of many Dukes and Duchesses, both Visconti and Sforza.  He had them all put again into the earth.”[7]  It was an action that was entirely consistent with his general attitude to political representations within sacred spaces.  Tombs in churches were permissible, but they should in no way encumber the liturgy or be positioned, as the tombs in the cathedral had clearly been, to bask in the sacred authority emanating from the high altar.  For Carlo Borromeo, this was not a matter of separation of church and state, in the modern American fashion say, but of the superiority of church over state.  His desire, really, was to keep the state in a position of subservience with respect to the church.  Secular monuments had few rights within his theocratic vision.  Once he had had these removed from the choir of the cathedral he redecorated that choir with a cycle exalting Milan’s long ecclesiastical history.  The cycle consisted of three parts.  One third was devoted to St. Ambrose, patron saint of Milan and Father of the Church.  A second third was given over to martyr saints, while the final component celebrated Milan’s unprecedented number of archbishop saints.[8]  Carlo oversaw the re-sacralization of the choir of Milan cathedral in decidedly local terms.

            Let us return to Philip III and trace his involvement in the canonization of this rather vexing figure.  Again, we can rely on the account of Grattarola.  In December 1602 the city of Milan wrote a letter to Philip III asking for help in the canonization of S. Carlo.  In that letter they were careful to emphasize the universality of the burgeoning cult, not limited to “city and state of Milan, but spread throughout Italy, and also beyond.”[9]  Philip III replied favorably on 16 June 1603, and not only was he supportive, but willing to help put the case before the pope.[10]  Clement VIII in turn responded positively, and on 16 February 1604 the process was set in motion.[11]  Many delays and setbacks occurred, but eventually the case was settled and Carlo was officially numbered amongst the saints in 1610. Decorating the façade of St. Peter’s in Rome for the canonization celebrations was the coat of arms of Philip III figuring prominently along those of the pope at that time, Paul V, and the city of Milan.  In recognition of his important role as promoter of the canonization process, Federico Borromeo, cousin to Carlo and Archbishop of Milan in 1610, sent a relic to Philip III, along with one of the standards used at the canonization.[12] 

            For Giussano, Philip III’s support of Carlo Borromeo was a simple matter of the king having inherited the devotion from his father.  I would argue that it was, instead, a different kind of inheritance from his father that we are dealing with here, namely the fragmentary and fragile state of the Spanish empire.  Simply put, Milan had strategic importance as a corridor to Northern Europe.[13]  Used to supply by land the army ofFlanders, this route became, as one historian has put it, the “jugular vein of Hapsburg strategy.”  If he was to hold on to his position in Northern Europe, which as defender of the faith he was intent of doing, Philip III needed the unbending loyalty of Milan. 

            Up until 1607 the tomb of Carlo Borromeo was a rather simple affair whose general appearance is likely conveyed by the prints from Bonino’s volume.  In 1606 this was to change. Federico Borromeo inspected the tomb and found it to be inadequate.  It frequently flooded with water, and the body of Carlo was, in fact, found to be completely sodden.[14]  In spite of this deplorable situation, the odor was insignificant and the flesh was still intact in many places, all of which was judged to be miraculous by the physicians there present.  After six days the body was sufficiently dry to be dressed, and Grattarola was proud to be present to assist in this task. 

            The so-called scurolo di S. Carlo, a crypt-like space below the original location of the tomb, was planned around this time.  In March of 1607 the space was ready and the saint’s remains were moved there, where they can still be viewed to this day.  He rests within a silver and rock crystal container.  In a letter of December 1611 Philip III states his pledge to donate 4000 ducats towards the creation of a fitting container for the saint.[15] By 1614, when Grattarola published his lengthy account of the canonization, the arca was almost complete. It takes the form of an elongated octagon and includes innumerable angels, along with twenty-four virtues.  As Grattarola has it, “… this miraculous sarcophagus is made totally out of the most pure and most clear mountain crystal, since there is no other thing dividing them but the fine silver ornaments … which serve to join it together and unite it…  and thus it is appropriate that those holy remains of the archbishop saint, which work and suffer for the growth of divine glory, and for the well being of souls, were then honored by such a vessel, made by the greatest and most powerful king there is in the world today.”[16]

fig. 7, Procession in Milan Cathedral, 1638


            All these themes come together in a print from 1638 (fig. 7).  It shows a procession in Milan cathedral, with S. Carlo in his arca at the centre.  The cathedral itself has been decked out with the decorations used on the feast day of the saint, a cycle of massive paintings of his life and miracles, usually called the Quadroni di S. Carlo.[17]  These still survive today and represent one of the few ephemeral programs to have survived from the seventeenth century.  The crystal coffin of the saint is accompanied by the Archbishop of Milan, his suffragan bishops, the canons of the cathedral, as well as the secular rulers of the city, including the Spanish governor.  The inscription makes clear that this is not just any old feast day of S. Carlo:  “Procession for universal peace between the Catholic princes, with the body of S. Carlo resting in the crystal arca offered to the saint by his Catholic majesty to the Archbishop of Milan, Cesare Monti.”[18]  The inscription has led some into the error of seeing the crystal arca as the gift of Philip IV, who reigned from 1621 to 1665, but the publication that accompanied the procession, also published in 1638, makes it clear that it was Philip III who gave the money for the sarcophagus.[19]

            The print demonstrates that, in some way at least, the cult of S. Carlo had not only taken on a civic slant, but a pro-Spanish angle as well.  During his lifetime, the archbishop had been the scourge of the Spanish, constantly pushing the boundaries of church power. Here we see him invoked as a symbol of Spanish Milan in its long struggle, along with the entire Spanish empire, with France.  The crystal arca was central to this new identification.  As the official account of the 1638 procession puts it:  “This most miraculous mausoleum testifies to the love of the crown of Spain towards S. Carlo.  It contains the heart of Milan.  In the mastery of that excellent work is represented the wisdom of the ingenious master, resplendent in the clarity of such fine crystals.  It makes most clear the royal magnificence of the Catholic king, and was in sum a lovely image of his generous magnanimity.”[20]  Philip III, so it seems, ensured the loyalty of his Milanese subjects by enclosing their new saint in a crystal box and transforming him into a loyal vassal of the Spanish crown.  One can only imagine how irritated this would have made Carlo, defender of the independent rights of the Milanese church above and beyond all secular authority.




[1] Agostino Borromeo, (1997), ‘L'arcivescovo Carlo Borromeo, la corona spagnola e le controversie giurisdizionali a Milano,’ in Franco Buzzi and Danilo Zardin (eds.), Carlo Borromeo e l'opera della ‘Grande Riforma.’  Cultura, religione e arti del governo nella Milano del pieno Cinquecento, pp. 257-272, Milan: Silvana Editoriale

[2] Giovanni Pietro Giussano, (1610), Vita di S. Carlo Borromeo, Rome: Nella Stamperia della Camera Apostolica, p. 507, “Il Rè di Spagna Filippo II, si come sentì gran cordoglio intendendo la sua morte, così volle conservar memoria di lui, tenendo il suo ritratto appresso di sè nella camera della sua audienza: & essendo una volta interrogato da Monsig. Cesare Speciano Nuntio appresso S.M. in che conto egli teneva il Card. Borromeo, per esser passati molti disgusti, e dispareri, tra esso, & i Ministri Regij in Milano.  Gli rispose il Rè, con viso molto allegro, che lo teneva per un’huomo Santo, e che riceveria mota gratia da Dio, se in tutte le Città, che sono ne’suoi Stati, e Regni, ci fossero di simili Vescovi… La qual opinione di Santità e poi passata da Filippo II, in Filippo III, come hereditaria del Padre nel figlio.”

[3] Marco Aurelio Grattarola, (1614), Successi maravigliosi della veneratione di S. Carlo Cardinale di S. Prassede, & Arcivescovo di Milano, Milan: P. Pontio, & G. B. Piccaglia, p. 9, "Et quindi è, che la devotione, l'osservanza, e la veneratione quasi di tutti i popoli, massimamente de Milanesi, fu sempre grandissima verso di lui, mentre egli visse, e maggior ancora è stata dopo la morte sua.  Onde molti visitano frequentemente, e con molta pietà il suo sepolcro.”  The best modern study is Angelo Turchini, (1984), La fabbrica di un santo:  Il processo di canonizzazione di Carlo Borromeo e la Controriforma, Casale Monferrato: Casa Editrice Marietti

[4] Grattarola, (1614), p. 15, “Era stata sempre fino a questo tempo la veneranda sepoltura di San Carlo (che è riposta per ordine del Santo istesso a i piedi de' primi gradi, che ascendono nel Choro di questa Chiesa Metropolitana, luogo il più humile, e frequentato della Chiesa) senza coperta, ò ornamento alcuno, con la semplice pietra marmorea sopra.”

[5] Cesare Bonino, (1610), Nonnulla Praeclara Gesta B. Caroli Borrom. S. R. E. Car. Tit. S. Praxedis Archiepis. Mediolani, Milan

[6] Paolo Morigia, (1642), Il Duomo di Milano, Milan: Per Gio. Pietro Cardi, ad instanza di Gio. Battista Bidelli, pp. 1-2, states that had Milan Cathedral been known to the ancient world, it would have been proclaimed the eighth wonder.  He also makes clear that the origin of the Duomo was in an act of Gian Galeazzo Visconti, who became duke in 1394:  “essendo diventato Signore assoluto, venne in ammiratione di tutti i Prencipi d’Italia, e più oltre.  E però attendeva a ringratiare Iddio de beneficij ricevuti, e per un chiarissimo segno di questo, egli determinò di far dare principio a questa ottava Maraviglia.  E volse che questa Chiesa fosse dedicata alla sempre Gloriosa Madre di Dio.”

[7] Morigia, (1642), p. 65, “Dirò ancora come l’anno 1565 Carlo Cardinale Borromeo prese il possesso del Arcivescovato di Milano, & celebrò il suo primo Concilio Provinciale nell’esecutione del quale egli fece levare tutti i depositi, e le casse che stavano in alto fra le colonne sopra il choro dove stavano riposti i corpi di molti Duchi, e Duchesse, cosi Visconti, come Sforzeschi, e li fece riporre in terra.”

[8] Arnalda Dallaj, (1984), ‘Carlo Borromeo e il tema iconografico dei santi arcivescovi milanesi,’ in Culto dei santi, istituzioni e classi sociali in età preindustriale, Sofia Boesch Gajano and Lucia Sebastiani (eds.), pp. 649-680, L'Aquila and Rome: Japadre editore

[9] Grattarola, (1614), p. 78, "Ma quello, che più importa, questo sentimento, & divotione non solo resta nella Città, & Stato di Milano, ma è sparsa per tutta Italia, & più oltre ancora.”

[10] Grattarola, (1614), p. 80

[11] Grattarola, (1614), p. 107

[12] Grattarola, (1614), p. 355

[13] Domenico Sella and Carlo Capra, (1984), Il Ducato di Milano dal 1535 al 1796, Turin: UTET, pp. 1-20

[14] Grattarola, (1614), p. 116, “Fu ritrovato il santo corpo rinchiuso in una cassa di piombo coperta d'un'altra cassa di tavole posta sopra una ferrata, e perche il luogo era humidissimo, e dalla volta del sepolcro cadeva acqua in tanta copia, c'haveva consumata, e passata in più luoghi sin' la cassa istessa di piombo, si ritrovò per questo quel sacro tesoro cosi bagnato, come se fosse stato in una fossa d'acqua;  onde rese non poca ammiratione il vederlo ancora tutto compaginato, con la carne palpabile in alcune parti: & particolarmente il petto, le mani, e piedi, non havevano lesione veruna, cosa giudicata da i Medici istessi ch'erano presenti, per molto maravigliosa.”

[15] Grattarola, (1614), p. 123

[16] Grattarola, (1614), p. 522, “Di modo che si deve dire, che questa mirabile Arca sia tutta di cristallo purissimo, & lucidissimo di montagna, poiche niun'altra cosa vie tra mezo, che gl'ornamenti d'argento fino di grana, come sono ancora tutte le figure, che servono per compaginarla, e unirla insieme;  e pero sarà un gioiello come dissi di sopra, di pretio inestimabile;  sopra della quale si fabricherà per sua custodia, una cassa di bronzo, tutta historiata, che sarà parimente di grandissimo prezzo:  & cosi conveniva, che quelle sacrate membra del Santo Arcivescovo, le quali tanto operarono, e patirono per accrescimento della divina gloria, e per la salute delle anime, fossero poscia honorate d'un'deposito tale, fatto dal più grande, e più potente Re che hoggi di sia nel mondo.”

[17] Marco Rosci, (1965), I quadroni di San Carlo nel Duomo di Milano, Milan: Casa Editrice Ceschina

[18] “Processione per la pace universale fra Principi catholici con il corpo di S. Carlo riposto nell’arca di cristallo offerta al S.to da S. M. Catholica.”

[19]Anon., (1638), Racconto della processione fatta in Milano il di di San Carlo, Per implorare con l’intercessione del Santo la Pace trà Principi Cattolici, Milan, p. 6

[20] Racconto della processione, p. 12, “Vedevasi entro quel miracolosissimo Mausoleo testimonio dell’amore della Corona di Spagna verso San Carlo, racchiuso il cuore di Milano, nella maestria di quell’eccellente intaglio rappresentato il sapere dell’ingegnoso Maestro, risplendere nella chiarezza di sì fini cristalli, lucidissima la reale magnificenza del Rè Cattolico, ed era in somma una vaga immagine, della di lui magnanimità generosa.”

Dr. Giles Knox lectures at the Indiana University, Bloomington, Indiana.

The Left, the Right and the Holy Spirit, October 2008