Saint Galgano and the sword in the stone

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A proud knight, the Holy Grail, a sword in the stone and Camelot… or rather Tuscany! Among enchanting natural landscapes, in a place shrouded in essential mysticism and of extraordinary historical importance, stands the Hermitage of Montesiepi. There hides a great mystery: a legendary sword was embedded in the stone by a saint. And just beyond, the firmament and the earth meet each other, not only in the minds and hearts of visitors, but among the imaginary open-air vaults of the Abbey of Saint Galgano, a sacred center from which Cistercian monks wrote the cultural history of the region.

The sword in the stone

In the hinterland of Siena, there are extraordinary places. Where the road leads towards the infinite landscapes of green nuances, and time passes slowly amidst the wonders of nature, an illumination is concealed. A sublime sense that arises before the unknown, mixed with bewilderment and gratitude. This is what the visitor feels when discovering the mysterious play of magic that shrouds the Hermitage of Montesiepi and the Abbey of Saint Galgano to an ethereal and imaginative dimension. Narrow are the hilly streets that lead to the ancient monastery. Steep are the paths of truth and a knight’s courage.

The travel begins at the edge of a bare rock, inside the Montesiepi Chapel of Saint Galgano. It is a stone like so many others. Nevertheless, it has an exceptional peculiarity: a metal sword is embedded in it almost to the hilt.

But how is it possible for a sword to be set inside a stone… in the middle of Tuscany? We will try to answer this question through an incredible story that transcends time and myth.

Saint Galgano Guidotti

Medieval hagiographies – first among them the Inquisitio in partibus, containing the acts of the canonization process of 11851 – attest that Galgano Guidotti, a knight of noble origins who was born in Chiusdino between 1148 and 1150, and who had lived a dissolute youth, had a mystical vision. He observed, as in a dream, Archangel Michael asking his mother, Dionigia, to make him a soldier. Awakened from that kind of ecstatic rapture, Galgano immediately ran to his mother and told her what he had seen:

His mother, after reflecting in silence, with great happiness said: “This vision is good, my son, and is for you the bearer of a message of immense joy. We in fact, I a widow and you an orphan, will be entrusted to Saint Michael, to whom your father was very devoted”.

Inquisitio in partibus, 1185

Dionigia reveals that Galgano’s family was particularly devoted to Archangel Michael. Indeed, his father Guidotto, who died in 11782, had been a knight, and fighters were probably his previous ancestors3: it seems natural that the protector of the family was precisely the commander of the celestial militia. Moreover, Galgano’s birthplace, Chiusdino, had Lombard origins, and their dedication to Saint Michael is well known.

Saint Galgano’s second mystic vision

Neither Galgano nor his mother, however, fully understood the nature of the divine request. Saint Michael demanded total adherence to milita Christi, the detachment from the material goods. And so, after years of doubt and uncertainty, Galgano received a second vision of the Archangel, urging him to follow. The young man saw himself in the saddle of a horse, which led him on a long journey. He crossed, not without difficulty, a bridge over a river and saw a mill in operation… thus he remembered the passage of time and the transience of all things.

It is easy to guess the mystical meaning hidden in the river, the mill and the bridge.

Rolando Pisano, Legenda Beati Galgani

After the bridge there was a meadow “covered with beautiful flowers, which spread a wonderful fragrance”. Galgano then entered an underground cavern and finally arrived at Monte Siepi, where a round house was built. There he recognized the twelve apostles, who gave him a book to read. Since he could not, he looked up to the sky and glimpsed the image of a divine majesty. So the apostles ordered him:

Build here a house in honour of God, Holy Mary, Saint Michael the Archangel and the twelve Apostles. And you shall stay here, for many years.

Inquisitio in partibus, 1185

The symbolic interpretation of the vision

Galgano’s vision embodies multiple archetypes of Medieval legend, which are expressed through codified symbolic images. Firstly, the saint undertakes a difficult path of iniziation, meaning to reach a higher level of awareness. The long and treacherous bridge is a metaphor for the transit of life. The river is a reference to the passing of time and the emptiness of material things. Here, the mill is a Wheel of Fortune, an allegory of the mutability of the world, in which chance predominates. Galgano then comes to a flowery meadow, but it is not the destination; it is rather the intermediate state of consciousness that follows conversion. But man’s last challenge before meeting the divine is the passage between life and death. And, in fact, Galgano crosses a cave, a dark and unknown symbolic space.

The saint finally comes to the apostles and refuses to read the book. This is a powerful and controversial image. Galgano’s gesture indicates a rejection of the intermediation of the Holy Scriptures and the existing monastic orders – the book of the vision is the Bible – in favour of a contemplation of the divine majesty through a direct, eremitic experience.

Saint Galgano’s conversion

So the saint began to think on how to fulfil the divine request. Monte Siepi was an impervious place, difficult even to imagine it as a dwelling place. The Inquisitio in partibus attests that no one seemed to take him seriously: friends, misjudging his project, replied “you want to collect money and swindle us. Go away overseas”. This gives an idea of what people thought of the Crusades. Even his mother disagreed with, as “the cold is excessive, the hunger intense, the place almost inaccessible: how will we go there?”. If not enough, from the 16th century Galgano’s hagiographies reveal that he had a betrothed, the noblewoman Polissena of Civitella. Dionigia tried in every way to convince him to contract marriage, abandoning his intentions to become a hermit.

Galgano, who knows, tried to obey his mother’s wishes and in December 1180 set out on the road to Civitella. At some point, however, his horse bolted, and there was no way to continue. The saint let go of the reins and abandoned himself to God’s will: the animal led him to Monte Siepi, at the place of the mystical vision. Galgano then donned a habit, made by tearing his own noble cloak, and here he retired to prayer.

And having drawn his sword, not being able to make a cross from the wood, he immediately planted the same sword in the ground as a cross. And it, by divine virtue, was welded together in such a way that neither he nor anyone else, by any effort whatsoever, was ever able to pull it out.

Inquisitio in partibus, 1185

In that moment the sword changed its meaning: from the sign of death it took on the features of the saving Cross of Christ.

The fight against the devil

Galgano established a small community of friars (fratres religiosi sancti Galgani) at Montesiepi, probably guided by the observance of an oral rule. In the spring of 1181, while he was going to Pope Alexander III, perhaps to ask for approval of his coenoby, three people, moved by envy, attempted to pull the sword out of the rock. Failing in any way, they broke it into two parts.

Tradition says that God punished them severely. One died struck by lightning. Another drowned in a river. The last of the three was attacked by wolves but invoked divine forgiveness and was spared. However, the beasts had time to tear off his arms, which were were preserved in a shrine as a warning. Sources from the 14th century identified the envious as the rector of the parish church of Chiusdino, the abbot and a converso of the Benedictine abbey of Serena. They feared that a new and more powerful monastic community might be born in Montesiepi, as in fact later happened.

The Lord commanded Galgano Guidotti to reassemble the cross-sword. He immediately restored it, and from then on no one ever dared try to take it out again.5. From that moment, even the devil began to fear Galgano’s sanctity:

[…] one night, while he was in the woods and taking shelter between two hornbeams, he heard the devil coming against him. Wanting that he did not oppress him there, he went out to face him bravely. And the devil, seeing the man’s tenacity, departed from him with a howl.

Inquisitio in partibus, 1185

Death and burial of Saint Galgano

After his conversion, Galgano followed a simple life of meditation, in contrast to the violence and political clashes that raged in the region, performing numerous miracles6. The hermit saint adopted a free style of prayer, without taking the habit of one of the existing religious orders. The Inquisitio in partibus, the source temporally closest to the events narrated, makes no mention of this. On November 30, 1181, a strong light announced Galgano’s death. The brethren buried him next to his sword, as befitted a knight, a knight of Christ.

[…] immediately he saw the cell illuminated with such splendour that it seemed that a ray of sunlight and light shone through a thousand holes like fire, and entered the cell where he was. And out of this light came a clear voice that said: “My Galgano, you are what you sowed”… Once this prayer was said, his soul departed from his body and deserved to reach the celestial homeland.

Leggenda di Santo Galgano Confessore, anonymous in the vernacular (14th century)

However, Galgano’s remains did not stay there for long: during the canonization process they were moved to an unknown location. The saint’s head was placed in a reliquary and taken to Siena. It is now located in the church of San Michele in Chiusdino.

The Hermitage of Montesiepi

Galgano Guidotti’s remains soon became greatly venerated, especially because of the miracles attributed to him by the people of Chiusdino. The growing pilgrimage to Montesiepi aroused the curiosity of the bishop of Volterra, Ugo Saladini. Hence, he decided to conduct an initial investigation into the events. He then ordered the construction of a circular chapel in order to guard Galgano’s sword and his burial. By 1185 the original core of the building was complete, and in the 14th century a side chapel7, frescoed by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, was added. Finally, a small bell gable tower was built in the 15th century.

The Chapel of Montesiepi

The Chapel of the Hermitage of Montesiepi can be reached via a pleasant path. A walk through the woods evokes the spiritual journey of the hermit Galgano.

This Chapel, built in Romanesque-Sienese style, is called the “Rotunda of Montesiepi” because of its cylindrical shape. The lower part of the building consists of travertine. Instead, the upper portion and the dome are distinguished by a bichromatic face with clear bands and brickwork.

The Rotunda is preceded by a pronaos with a round arch, above which stands the coat of arms of the Florentine Medici family.

The sword of Saint Galgano

Inside the Rotunda of Montesiepi is located the sword in the rock of Galgano. The relic is protected by a glass case that was added in the 20th century, after some vandals in 1960 and 1991 imprudently pulled it out. Well yes, even the warning of divine retribution was not enough!

In 2001, a team assisted by Professor Luigi Garlaschelli of CICAP wanted to ascertain that the sword was really embedded in the rock, and that its date was contemporary with Saint Galgano. Although its existence at Montesiepi is attested by different paintings and works since the 13th century, not least Lorenzetti’s fresco in the side chapel, the investigation has confirmed that the relic is still the original one.

The sword was broken into two parts, as indeed tradition tells: a short drilling of the rock revealed the front part of the blade. Some iron samples were extracted from it. The University of Pavia has analyzed them with Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy and the LENA research center with Neutron Activation. Examination of the metal composition ruled out the use of modern alloys. Thus, a Medieval origin of the artifact is plausible. The style of the sword is, in fact, attributable to the late 12th century, in accordance with Ewart Oakeshott’s classification8.

Traces of the Knights Templar

Galgano Guidotti was not only a great saint, but a true revolutionary. Through his gesture, of enormous symbolic significance, he embodied the monastic and chivalric ideals that animated his time. He thus became the archetype of the Medieval righteous man, the noble knight who used the sword to serve God. It seems natural, therefore, that his figure was especially revered by the Hierosolymitan orders involved in the Crusades. In the Sienese area the Knights Templar were particularly active. In fact the Via Francigena passed through here, along which they owned numerous mansions. Moreover, Saint Galgano had embraced the monastic rule of the Cistercians, brothers in the faith of the militia Templi. Indeed, they shared with them the theological imprint of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux.

Some traces of the Knights Templar can therefore be found at the Rotunda of Montesiepi.

The historical presence of the Templars in Montesiepi has raised questions not easy to define, suspended between truth and legend. A sword stuck in the rock call to mind the Arthurian epic of the Knights of the Round Table. Through an audacious analogy, some have fantasized that the Templars owned the precious relic described in the novels of Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron, the Holy Grail, and that they hid it in Montesiepi to preserve it… Beyond the myth, it is fascinating to imagine that the Order of the Temple had found in Jerusalem the holy chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper, and that they kept it in the middle of Tuscany.

The Abbey of Saint Galgano

Because he lived as a simple hermit, and had not adhered to any monastic rule, the figure of Galgano Guidotti was disputed, in the years following his death, between the Cistercians and the Augustinians9. Both orders, in the 13th and 14th centuries, promoted his sanctity: there is an Augustinian hagiography from this period (Vita beati Galgani10) and another written by an anonymous Cistercian (Vita Sancti Galgani de Senis11).

Emperor Henry VI fostered white monks from Cîteaux. They were sent to Chiusdino in 1191 to establish a better organized community. Who better than the Cistercians of Bernard of Clairvaux, who had argued for the necessity of the sword (De laude novae militiae, 1128), could be worthy of residing at Montesiepi?

However, a document from 1196 tells us that they were not exactly welcome. The friars who had shared the first coenoby with Galgano, and who had lived a more free spirituality, did not like the imposition of the strict Cistercian rule. Hence, they decided to move away. This is attested by the rise of different hermitic settlements, named after the saint, in other places in Tuscany12. These fraternities – San Galgano di Catasta, San Galgano di Fidentio in Funticellis, San Galgano di Vallebuona, Santi Giorgio e Galgano della Spelonca – had eventually merged precisely into the Ordo Eremitarum Sancti Augustini (1256), at the express request of Pope Alexander IV.

A new abbey

When Bishop Ugo perished in 1185 – he was to be declared a saint as well – he was succeeded by Ildebrando, who belonged to the powerful pro-imperial Pannocchieschi family. Now, if there had been a figure of a paladin, noble knight and free from the influence of ecclesiastical orders, that was certainly Galgano Guidotti. Ildebrando, therefore, decided to support the cult of the saint, both to affirm the model of a “Ghibelline saint”13 and to give prestige to the church of Volterra against the rising bourgeoisie. As early as August 1185, he requested Pope Lucius III to open the canonization process for Galgano.

In addition, since the pilgrims coming to Montesiepi had become too numerous, at the Merse plain below the Hermitage, the construction site for the building of an imposing Cistercian abbey was prepared14. By 1262 the work was almost completed, and a few years later the abbey church could already be consecrated (1288). The community of Cistercian monks residing here, a daughter of Casamari, became a real economic power. Thus, Montesiepi is the first monastery in Tuscany in terms of political and cultural importance.

Even the powerful city of Siena had to admit the mastery of the Cistercian workers. In 1257 the monk Ugo became head of the Biccherna, the Revenue Office of the Tuscan city. Moreover, it was precisely the Cistercian monks of Saint Galgano who built part of Siena Cathedral of Santa Maria Assunta.

The period of decline

From the second decade of the 14th century, a period of decline began for the Abbey and Hermitage of Montesiepi. A violent famine, the plague of 1348 and finally some looting put the monastic community in difficulty. This process culminated in 1474, when the Cistercians of Saint Galgano completely abandoned the monastery and moved to Siena. From 1503 the complex was entrusted to a series of commendatory abbots, whose management was disastrous. To give an idea, Abbot Giovanni Andrea Vitelli Ghiandaroni (1538 to 1576) let the lead roofing of the Montesiepi Rotunda (and not of the abbey church as mistakenly believed) to be dismantled; the metal was probably used to make bullets15.

From this time the Abbey began to rapidly fall into disrepair. In 1786 the bell tower was felled by lightning and caused the wooden roof of the church to collapse16. For centuries the Abbey of Saint Galgano was left to neglect and no trace remains today of the splendid stained glass windows of yesteryear. Only in the early 20th century, it was finally decided to carry out a conservative restoration of the remaining structures.

The Cistercian architecture of the Abbey of Saint Galgano

The Abbey of Saint Galgano reflects the sobriety established by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux17. In accordance with the plan-types of Cistercian architecture, it consists of an abbey church, with a Latin cross plan over a nave and two aisles, a cloister and a chapter house.

The abbey church has a very special charm and conveys a feeling of nostalgia. One could perceive the ancient glory of the monastery, but it is now lost, the architecture is in ruins. The lack of the roof reveals the formal linearity of Gothic verticalism. It allows to cast the gaze far beyond the dimension of space, toward infinity.

The facade, bare of decoration, opens to three portals with pointed arches and bichromatic archivolt; above through two large single-lancet windows. The central portal alone has an architrave decorated with an acanthus leaf frieze. Furthermore, leaning against the facade are four half-columns. It is likely that they were affixed to support an entrance portico, which, however, no one ever built.

From the church’s side view, we observe the two orders of windows and the fine elevation of the transept.

The Apse was probably the first portion built, as it is the one that most fully reflects the canons of Cistercian architecture.

Of considerable interest is what remains of the cloister, partially reconstructed in the 20th century with original materials. Today it is possible to admire only a few arches, sufficient to give a sense of the architectural beauty of the past.

The chapter house is a large room divided by six columns supporting cross vaults. It can be entered from the cloister through a portal with a pointed arch.

Symbology

Before the entrance, inside an external niche of the cloister, a wall depiction of the Merels Board is visible. The specimen, whose symbolism, popularized in the Middle Ages by the Knights Templar and connected to the Temple of Solomon, is uncommon. In fact, it is positioned vertically, rather than horizontally as usual.

In the chapter house, the remnants of the original decorations, which include some knots, a Flower of Life and the Sacred Center symbol, are of interest:

Saint Galgano and King Arthur

The life of Galgano Guidotti, and of the sword stuck in the rock, remind us another story, mythical and literary, with which it shares unmistakable similarities. This is the matière de Bretagne, which developed across the Channel since the early Middle Ages, but whose first systematic writing historians recognize in the Historia Regum Britanniae (1135-1137) of Geoffrey of Monmouth.

The Arthurian cycle reached Italy through the vast strand of literature that developed in France. Crucially contributing to the success of the Matter of Britain were the novels of Chrétien de Troyes. He first introduced the characters of Lancelot (Lancelot ou le Chevalier à la charrette, 1170-1180) and Parsifal, but especially the term of the Grail (Le Roman de Perceval ou le conte du Graal, 1175-1190). The Christian dimension of the Holy Grail appears, however, in the later work of Robert de Boron (Joseph of Arimathea) and the sword that Arthur drew from the stone to become king (Merlin) too.

A boundary between legend and reality

The similarities between the hagiographies of Galgano and the Matter of Britain cannot be accidental. Beginning with the evocative gesture of the Knight Galgano Guidotti, an inverted Arthur, who instead of drawing his sword from the stone, stuck it there. The name “Galgano” then recalls that of “Galvanus “(Gawain), one of the Knights of the Round Table, Arthur’s nephew. A bishop of Volterra had already been called in the same way before him (1150-1171). The twelve apostles in the Saint’s vision at the Rotunda of Montesiepi evoke the twelve Knights of the Round Table. And again, some scholars have drawn comparisons between Galgano’s mother and Parsifal’s mother, both widows. One could go on and on…

A tradition that goes way back

Certainly there was a contamination between Arthurian sources and Galgano’s hagiographies. However, it is by no means easy to reconstruct the dynamics. The problem is, first of all, time-related: the spread of the French Arthurian literature in Italy took place decades after the saint’s story, and it could therefore be imagined that it was inspired by it; however, some of the themes evoked both in Montesiepi and in the Matter of Britain are certainly older and were most likely part of a common cultural substratum18.

In Italy there are some artistic records of the Arthurian cycle that attest to the existence of oral accounts even earlier than the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth. In Modena, for example, a very skilled master sculpted the Porta della Pescheria at the cathedral between 1110 and 1120. A number of chivalric scenes are masterfully depicted on the archivolt. The protagonists are referred to by Latinized Breton names (Galvaginus, Conrad, Isdernus, Winlogee, Burmaltus, and Artus de Bretania). These are names familiar to readers of the Breton cycle, and the door reliefs seem to represent the liberation of Princess Winlogee (Guinevere), held captive in a castle.

Saint Galgano, the perfect knight

It is evident that an oral narrative tradition already existed in Italy. Most likely, this had spread along the routes of the Via Francigena between Rome and Canterbury. Here pilgrims and crusaders, aided by numerous storytellers, told the mythical events of King Arthur.

From this oral tradition Geoffrey of Monmouth wrote his famous work, Chrétien de Troyes initiated the French novel, and the knight Galgano Guidotti fulfilled his hermit mission. Galgano’s life can be observed as the tangible realization of a myth, of a narrative that had laid its cultural groundwork. Galgano embodied the essence of the chivalric tale. He was the personification of the Medieval Christian hero, who makes a one of the cross and the sword, virtue and sacrifice, reality and legend. In any case, only one thing is certain: the sword in the stone, the only truly real one, is not in Britain but in Tuscany.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Map of places

Notes

  1. Inquisitio in partibus, dal processo di canonizzazione (1185) come trascritto da Sigismondo Tizio in Historiae Senenses, Cod. Chigi G. I. 31; F. Scneider – Analecta toscana, IV, Der Einsiedler Galgan von Chiusdino und die Anfaenge von S. Galgano – in Quelle und Forschungen aus Italienischen Archiven und Bibliotheken, XVII (1914-1924). ↩︎
  2. Giuseppe S. Costantini, Vita di san Galgano, Compagnia di San Galgano, Chiusdino, 1904. ↩︎
  3. Rolando Pisano, Legenda Beati Galgani. Da Mario Moiraghi, L’enigma di san Galgano. La spada nella roccia tra storia e mito, Milano, Ancora, 2003. ↩︎
  4. Di Sailko – Opera propria, CC BY 3.0, image. ↩︎
  5. Ibidem note 1. ↩︎
  6. Ibidem note 1. ↩︎
  7. Massimo Marini, Chiusdino. Il suo territorio e l’abbazia di San Galgano, Siena, Nuova Immagine editrice, 1995. ↩︎
  8. E. Oakeshott, The Archaeology of Weapons: Arms and Armour from Prehistory to the Age of Chivalry, 1960. ↩︎
  9. A. Gianni, La fortuna di san Galgano: l’iconografia e il culto dal XII al XIX secolo. ↩︎
  10. Codice Laurenziano,XV secolo; E. Susi, La memoria contesa: il dossier agiografico di san Galgano, in La spada nella roccia. San Galgano e l’epopea eremitica di Montesiepi, a cura di A. Benvenuti, Firenze 2004. ↩︎
  11. Codice di Veroli, XV secolo. ↩︎
  12. A. Conti, La diaspora dei Consocii beati Galgani e le memorie galganiane in Val di Chiana, in Garfagnana e in Maremma, Accademia di San Galgano, 2004. ↩︎
  13. Ibidem E. Susi in note 10. ↩︎
  14. E. Repetti, Dizionario geografico, fisico, storico del Granducato di Toscana, Firenze, 1833-1846. ↩︎
  15. V. Passeri, Documenti per la storia delle località della provincia di Siena, Cantagalli, Siena 2002. ↩︎
  16. A. Canestrelli, L’abbazia di S. Galgano. Monografia storico-artistica con documenti inediti e numerose illustrazioni, Alinari, Firenze 1896. ↩︎
  17. Bernardo di Chiaravalle, Apologia ad Guillelmum Abbatem, 1225. ↩︎
  18. F. Cardini, San Galgano e la spada nella roccia, Siena 2000. ↩︎

Author

Samuele avatar

Samuele is the founder of Indagini e Misteri, a blog on anthropology, history and art. He has a degree in forensic biology and works for the Ministry of Culture. For pleasure he studies unusual and ancient things, such as unclear symbols or enigmatic apotropaic rituals. He pursues the mystery through adventure but inexplicably it is is always one step further.

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