A proud knight, the Holy Grail, the sword in the stone and … Camelot … or maybeTuscany! In the midst of enchanting natural landscapes, in a place of essential mysticism and extraordinary artistic importance, is located the Hermitage of Montesiepi. The most mysterious Tuscany hides a great arcane related to a legendary sword, which was embedded into the rock. In this place the firmament and the earth meet each other, in minds and hearts of the visitors, even in the open vaults of the Abbey of Saint Galgano. Here the Cistercian monks wrote the cultural history of the entire region. The editorial board of Indagini e Misteri is once again on the traces of the unknown, through myth, or reality.
The town of Chiusdino
In the deepest hinterland of Tuscany extraordinary places are hidden. Where the road leads to endless landscapes of green shades, still the same, there is an illumination. A sublime feeling of wonder, of bewilderment and even gratitude: it is what the visitor feels in discovering an arcane world, where everything is hidden. It is the prestigious magic game that appears as soon as someone goes to Chiusdino and visits its fascinating Cistercian Abbey. Narrow mountain roads lead towards the Hermitage of Montesiepi and the Abbey of Saint Galgano: the show can begin.
Who decides to follow the traces of the mystery starts his adventure at the edges of a bare rock. It is a boulder like many others in the area, but it shows something extraordinary: a metal sword is incredibly stuck inside it.
We are inside a small circular room, nicely decorated: the Hermitage of Montesiepi.
How is it possible that a sword is set inside a rock … in the middle of Tuscany? It is necessary to tell an incredible story to answer this question, that goes beyond time and myth.
The story of Saint Galgano
On Christmas Day 1180 a knight of noble origins but with a dissolute life-style, Galgano Guidotti, had a mystical vision. The archangel Michael suddenly appeared and told him to follow him. Galgano obeyed and was led on a long journey. He crossed a bridge over a river and saw a working mill… Galgano remembered the passing of the time and the passing of all things. He crossed a flowery meadow, brightly coloured, and came to a circular room. Here he recognized the twelve apostles and met God.
Hence, Galgano understood that God was calling him to conversion, to dedicate his life only to Him. As a symbolic gesture, the knight stuck his sword into a stone. The weapon took the form of the saving cross of Christ. Finally, Galgano tore up his cloak and sewed a humble habit. He decided to become a hermit and never to abandon the place where he had stuck his sword: the Hermitage of Montesiepi.
Every day Galgano consecrated him to God and, praying near the sword in the stone and resisting to any temptation. However, the devil tried to distract him from holiness in any way. One day three brethren, deceived by the cunning of the devil, tried to draw the sword. The monks failed to take off the sword from the rock and decided to break it into two parts.
Legend tells that God punished them harshly: one of the three brothers died because he was struck by lightning, another drowned in a river. The last one was attacked by wolves when, invoking divine forgiveness, he was spared. However, the beasts had time to tear off his arms, and those arts were kept in a display case, as a warning to anyone who intended to draw the sword again …
The Lord commanded Galgano Guidotti to reconstruct the sword, which was immediately recomposed and, from that moment on, no one ever tried to draw the sword again.The saint had a simple and meditative life, in contrast to the violence and political clashes of his time. In the last year of his life Galgano fully lived the rule of the Cistercian monks. One day in 1181 a strong light announced to him that he had to return to God.
The Hermitage of Montesiepi
After the death of Galgano Guidotti, it was decided to build a chapel at the place where the saint had retired as a hermit. The construction, under the jurisdiction of the bishop of Volterra Ugo Saladini, was probably built by the Cistercian monks of Casamari. In 1185 the original core of the building was already complete and in the 14th century the atrium and an additional side chapel were added.
The Chapel of the Hermitage of Montesiepi can be easily reached through a pretty path. A relaxing woodland walk evokes the spiritual path of the hermit Galgano.
The Chapel, externally, shows a cylindrical shape. Access is through the atrium in front with a round arch.
The small church is called “Rotonda di Montesiepi” due to its unusual shape. It has a Romanesque-Sienese architectural style. The lower part of the Chapel is built entirely of travertine and the upper part, like the dome, appears as a two-colored with alternating light and red bands (brick).
Above the entrance arch there is a coat of arms of the Florentine Medici family; certainly more recent than the rest of the construction:
The traces of the Knights Templar
Here is possible to see some significant architectural elements. Indeed, could there be no trace of the Knights Templar, in a place of such importance? The answer will be rather obvious, if we consider the close brotherhood between the Cistercian monks and the Order of the Temple of Jerusalem. The two orders, in fact, shared the same monastic rule and were so similar.
Some scholars argues the hermitage of Montesiepi, and the close Abbey of Saint Galgano, were the operational base of the Knights of Jerusalem in Tuscany. According to this theory, it seems the Templars were in possession of a famous and precious relic, which they would have hidden in this place to preserve it. It would be a relic lost from long time and probably never found again. It would be the same artefact told by the legend of the Knights of the Round Table… we are talking about the Holy Grail! Is it possible that the Templars had found in Jerusalem the holy chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, and kept it right in the middle of Tuscany?
Inside the atrium we find, on the floor, a slab engraved with a Cross Pattée, an unmistakable sign of the passage of the Knights Templar:
Further evidence of the presence of the Templar Order are some human and zoomorphic heads, carved outside the Chapel.
This type of sculpted heads, with a beard and without hair, are constantly found in Templar places.
Inside the Chapel
The inside of the Chapel has a cover characterized by two-colored concentric circles.
At the center of the chapel is the stone in which the sword is stuck. Laterally, four single-light windows open. The interior decorations appear rather poor, as in the typical Cistercian style, except for some graceful capitals carved:
Laterally to the Rotonda is the most recent Chapel of Lorenzetti, dated to the fourteenth century. The plant is rectangular and is surmounted by a cross vault.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti frescoed the chapel in the period 1334-1336.
In this room the bones of one of the three monks who imprudently extracted the sword are preserved.
After the building of the Hermitage in 1185, the Bishop of Volterra, Ildebrando Pannocchieschi, decided to edify an impressive Cistercian abbey. Construction works began in 1215, and in 1262 they were already completed. The new Abbey was consecrated in 1288. So, the community of Cistercian monks became a real economic power, and Montesiepi was the most influential monastery in Tuscany for politics and culture.
Even the powerful city of Siena had to recognize the mastery of the Cistercian workers. In 1257 the monk Ugo became the director of the Biccherna, the Revenue Office of Siena. Moreover, the Cistercians of Saint Galgano built a large part of the Siena Cathedral.
From the second decade of the XIV centuy, a period of decline for the Monastery began. A violent famine, the plague of 1348, and some looting decimated the monastic community.
In 1474, the Cistercians completely abandoned the Abbey of Saint Galgano and moved to Siena.
Starting from 1503 the prestigious building was entrusted to a series of commendatory abbots. In this period the roof covering of lead was removed to be melted and sold for the manufacture of projectiles.
From that moment on, the Abbey literally began to fall to pieces: without covering the vaults soon fell, and the splendid stained glass windows were lost. In 1786 the bell tower was knocked down by lightning. For centuries the Abbey was abandoned to the worst degradation until only the 1926 when it was decided to carry out a restoration.
The Abbey of Saint Galgano
The Abbey fully reflects the sobriety of the typical Cistercian architecture.
It is composed of a main building, the church with a Latin cross plan on three naves, a cloister and a chapter house.
The facade, rather poor with friezes, opens onto three portals with pointed archs.
The only central portal has an architrave decorated with acanthus leaves.
In the upper part of the facade, which was probably never completed, there are two large windows with a pointed arch.
Furthermore, there are four semi-columns leaning against the facade. Maybe they would have to sustain an entrance porch ever built.
The lateral sides open with two orders of windows: in the upper part they are mullioned windows and in the lower portion they are single-light windows.
From the lateral view of the church it is possible to observe the exquisite transept view. Note the large window, originally a three-light window, and the two lateral buttresses. The portal at the base led to the cemetery of the complex.
The apse was probably the first portion built, because it is the most similar to the canons of Cistercian architecture.
Inside the Abbey there are no roof, no floor.
The plan is a Latin cross, with a large transept, on three naves.
The right aisle:
And the left aisle:
The main aisle:
The view of the internal choir:
We can still admire what remains of the splendid rose window of the lateral transept:
In the right and left naves there were some chapels, inside of which ceremonies were officiated, as evidenced by the niches designed to rest religious objects, or used as a sink:
Of particular interest is the cloister of the Abbey of Saint Galgano. Completely destroyed by neglect and time, it was partially rebuilt only in the 20th century with original materials.
Today you can see only some arches, however sufficient to imagine the architectural beauty of the cloister in the past. Note the orders of double and triple windows.
A detail of the surviving friezes:
The Merels Board
Just before entering the church, inside a niche, there is a painted example of the Merels Board (Triplice Cinta). It is a possible symbolism linked to the Order of the Knights of the Temple in Jerusalem. This finding supports the thesis that the Templars could have helped the Cistercians in the construction of the Abbey of Saint Galgano. Readers can refer to the specific article on this website.
This specimen is unusual because it is positioned vertically, rather than horizontally as usual. This positioning suggests that the Merels Board was a well-coded symbolism and not just the board of a game.
Other symbolisms and the exteriors of the Abbey of Saint Galgano
The chapter house is a large room divided by six columns that support cross vaults. It can be accessed from the cloister through a large portal with a pointed arch.
Of interest are the remains of some friezes, which once decorated the hall.
A Flower of Life:
Detail of the mullioned window of the Chapter Room, with a cropped column:
A carved rose:
One beautiful Solomon’s Knot:
Is Saint Galgano like King Arthur?
If we read the stories of the Arthurian cycle and observe the archaeological findings of Chiusdino, we cannot ignore the coincidences. The similarities between the myth of Anglo-Saxon literature and reality are very evident. Galgano Guidotti is a sort of King Arthur, but instead of extracting a sword from a rock, he stuck it into it. The twelve apostles of the vision resoundingly remember the twelve knights of the Round Table. Furthermore, we must not forget the search for the Grail, which some claim is really connected to the presence of the Templars in Tuscany. All this happens near a singular river called “Gallesse”: is it perhaps a Tuscan distortion of the name “Galles”, the town of King Arthur?
But there is even more. A fairy tale told to the children of Mount Amiata, in Tuscan Maremma, not far from Siena, directly names another famous person of the Arthurian cycle. The story tells that a huge fire-breathing dragon ailed the monks of the monastery of La Selva, near Santa Fiora. In order to destroy it the monks called a powerful wizard who lived in a cave: his name was Merlin the Magician! With the help of Saint George, Merlin defeated the dragon and peace returned to the convent.
Myth or reality?
We do not know where the legend begins and reality ends. Any way, even today, in the municipality of Arcidosso (GR) there is a large cave called Merlino’s cave. Moreover, a dense esoteric symbolism distinguishes that Maremma country, making it unique.
A recent hypothesis is that the history of Saint Galgano has been exported to England and therefore reformulated. Indeed, there is no clear proof of the existence of a character called Arthur, or of a King who may have inspired the legend. Historians argue for the hypothesis that the Arthurian myth is a collage of stories came to Britain from other cultures.
Did the knight Galgano Guidotti inspire one of the most incredible legends in the world?
No one could say this with certainty, but one stuff is certain: the Sword in the Rock, the only known, is not in Britain, but in Tuscany.
Samuele Corrente Naso
Samuele is the founder of Indagini e Misteri, a reason for being perhaps philosophical, vaguely existential and anthropological enough. He has a degree in biological sciences and forensic biology. For pleasure he look for transcendence through unusual and antiquated things, like uncertain symbolisms or enigmatic apotropaic rites. He pursues the mystery through the adventure but that, inexplicably, is always one step ahead.