The Altopascio Tau Knights

In the Tuscan branch of the Via Francigena, the ancient way that led pilgrims to Jerusalem, there is the nice village of Altopascio. Here, before 1084, there had been the Spedale “edificatus in locus et finibus ubi dicitur Teupascio”. This was the building devoted to the sustenance and treatments to the pilgrims passing through the adjacent ways.

Around this primitive centres, the military (religious-knightly) Order of Saint James, or simply the Tau Knights, moved to. Similarly to the function that the Knights Templar were having in the Holy Land, they escorted and defended pilgrims on the way, furnishing the necessary medicaments and improving the road conditions by the construction of bridges or cobblestones. The Altopascio Knights were loyal to the St. Augustine’s rule and considered the Apostle St. James as their main protector.

via francigena
The modern Via Francigena

Tau symbology

The choice of the Tau symbolism is not random: St. James was always considered as the pilgrims’ protector. Not by chance, one of the most important ways of the Middle Age was the Santiago de Compostela’s one, in Spain.

The Tau symbol may also recall the cane of the pilgrim; anyway, the symbol embroiding in the Altopascio Knights’ black cloaks has various biblical meanings. It is the last letter of the Jewish alphabet, which represents the fulfilment of the entire God’s work. In the Ezekiel’s book it is cited that «Go throughout the city of Jerusalem,” said the Lord, “and put a mark on the foreheads of the men sighing and groaning over all the abominations committed there» [1]. Hence, Tau symbolizes a kind of “seal” that identifies the chosen by God. Further, it may look like the shape of the cross of Christ. In line with these considerations, it is not surprisingly that the Altopascio Knights adopted this symbol to represent the Order.

The Tau symbol, carved on one side of the main Church of the Altopascio bell tower: St. Jacopo Maggiore (see below). Still today, Tau represents the city emblem.

Historical background

The Domus Hospitalis Sancti Iacobi de Altopassu probably saw the birth of the most ancient Knight Order of Europe, since similar congregations are not previously mentioned. The Spedal became an important political and military junction in Tuscany, implementing over time the territorial possessions and many riches. At the end of 1425 the Order was a witness of the conflicts between the Florence army (that strove for the property of the manor) and the triumphant army of Pisa-Lucca, led by Castruccio Castracani. 

Officially, the St. James Knights operated until 1459, although some mentions of a “secrecy” during the following century exist, when Pope Pius II declared their dissolution and the confiscation of their properties; finally, Altopascio was conquered by Florence.

The Church of San Jacopo Maggiore

The Church of Saint Jacopo Maggiore was a relevant place of worship for the Tau Knights. Today located in the centre of Altopascio, the church dates back to the 12th century and has a clear Romanesque-Lucca inspiration. Now the church is part of a larger building in the 19th century, becoming the transept of the current structure. Although the various changes, the facade of the Romanesque building of the Tau Knights has been maintaining its ancient and unchanging splendour. Among the dichromate white and black bands of the upper portion, Saint Jacopo seems greeting pilgrims who still today pass across these fascinating places.

Saint Jacopo Maggiore

Samuele Corrente Naso


[1] Ezekiel 9,4

error: Eh no!