St. Galgano and the sword in the stone

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A proud knight, the Holy Grail, the sword in the stone and Camelot… or Tuscany! Among enchanting natural landscapes, in a place shrouded in essential mysticism and of extraordinary historical importance, stands the Hermitage of Montesiepi. Here 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 St. Galgano, a sacred center from which Cistercian monks wrote the cultural history of the region.

The sword in the stone

Where the road leads toward the infinite landscapes of the Sienese countryside, and time passes slowly amidst the wonders of nature, an illumination is concealed; a sublime sense that arises before the unknown, with bewilderment and gratitude. It is what the visitor feels in discovering an arcane world, where everything is hidden. This is what the visitor feels when discovering the arcane play of magic that chains the Hermitage of Montesiepi and the Abbey of St. Galgano to an ethereal and imaginative dimension. Narrow are the hilly lanes that lead to the ancient monastery; narrow are the paths of truth and courage of a knight.

St. Galgano
The Hermitage of Montesiepi

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

St. Galgano
The sword in the stone

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

St. Galgano
The Montesiepi Chapel

St. Galgano Guidotti

Medieval hagiographies – first among them the Inquisitio in partibus, containing the proceedings 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 led a dissolute life in his youth, had a mystical vision. He observed, as in a dream, St. Michael the Archangel asking his mother, Dionigia, that he become 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 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 the archangel Michael. Indeed, his father Guidotto, who died in 11782, had been a knight, and fighters had been his previous ancestors3: it seems natural that the protector of these nobles was precisely the commander of the celestial militia. Moreover, Galgano’s birthplace, Chiusdino, had Lombard origins, and their dedication to St. Michael the Archangel is well known.

St. Galgano’s second mystic vision

Neither Galgano nor his mother, however, fully understood the nature of the divine request. St. Michael demanded total adherence to milita Christi, the detachment from the material world. 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 riding a horse, which led him on the steps of a long path. He crossed, not without difficulty, a bridge over a river and saw a mill… thus he was reminded of the passage of time and the transience of all things.

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 for him to read, but since he could not, he looked up to heaven and glimpsed the image of a divine majesty. So the apostles ordered him:

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

Inquisitio in partibus, 1185
Frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti at the chapel of the same name (1334-36): saints pay homage to Galgano, led by the archangel Michael4

The symbolic interpretation of the vision

Galgano’s vision encompasses multiple archetypes of medieval legend, which are expressed through codified symbolic images. First and foremost, the saint makes a difficult inizatic path, in the sense of arriving at a higher level of awareness: the long and treacherous bridge is a metaphor for the transit of life; the river for the passage of time and the transience of material things; the mill here 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; rather, it is 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 indeed Galgano passes through 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 existing monastic orders – the book of vision is the Bible – in favor of a contemplation of divine majesty through direct, eremitic experience.

St. Galgano’s conversion

The saint began to think about how to fulfill the divine request. Monte Siepi was an impervious hilltop, difficult even to hypothesize 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”-which, moreover, gives us an idea of what people thought of the Crusades-and even his mother disagreed with, as “the cold is excessive, the hunger intense, the place almost inaccessible: how will we go there?” As if that were not enough, starting 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 donned a habit, which he had 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.

Inquisitio in partibus, 1185

At that precise instant, the sword changed in signification: from being the sign of death that it was, it took on the features of Christ’s saving Cross.

The fight against the devil

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

According to legend, God punished them severely. One of the three brothers died because he was struck by lightning, another drowned in a river; the last was attacked by wolves when, invoking divine forgiveness, he was spared. However, the beasts had time to tear off his arms, which were kept in a display case as a warning to anyone who intended to draw the sword again… Sources from the 14th century identified the envious as the rector of the parish of Chiusdino, the abbot and a converso of the Benedictine abbey of Serena, who feared that a new and more powerful monastic community might be born in Montesiepi, as in fact later happened.

St. Galgano
Reliquary in the Lorenzetti Chapel (14th century). Here, according to tradition, are preserved the arms of the envious man who was attacked by wolves. Radio dating by the 14C method, conducted by Luigi Garlaschelli in 2001, has confirmed that the limbs belong to the 12th century. Beyond the legend, they could be the remains of Galgano’s first followers.

The Lord commanded Galgano Guidotti to reassemble the cross-sword, which he immediately fixed5. 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 one not to 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

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. Most importantly, the hermit saint adopted a genuine and free praying style, 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 beside his sword, as befitted a knight, a knight of Christ.

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, however, was placed in a reliquary and taken to Siena; it is now placed in the church of San Michele in Chiusdino.

The Hermitage of Montesiepi

Galgano Guidotti’s remains were soon 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, who decided to conduct an initial investigation into the events. He then ordered the construction of a circular chapel in order to house 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 path of the hermit Galgano.

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

St. Galgano
Rotunda of Montesiepi

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

St. Galgano
Medici coat of arms

The sword of St. Galgano

Located inside the Rotunda of Montesiepi is 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.

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 St. 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 has it: a short drilling of the rock has allowed the front part of the blade to be detected. Some iron samples have been extracted from it, which the University of Pavia has analyzed with Atomic Absorption Spectroscopy and the LENA research center with Neutron Activation. Analysis of the metal composition has excluded the use of modern alloys, and therefore 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 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 Military orders involved in the Crusades. In the Sienese area the Knights Templar were particularly active, since the Via Francigena passed through here, along which they owned numerous mansions. Moreover, St. Galgano had embraced the monastic rule of the Cistercians, who were brothers in the faith of the militia Templi since they shared with them the theological imprint of St. 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 some questions over time that are not easy to define, suspended somewhere between truth and legend. After all, a sword stuck in the rock cannot but call to mind the Arthurian epic of the Knights of the Round Table. Through an audacious analogy, some have fantasized that the Templars were in possession of the very precious relic described in the novels of Chrétien de Troyes and Robert de Boron, the Holy Grail, and that they hid it in Montesiepi in order 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 it was kept in the middle of Tuscany.

The Abbey of St. Galgano

Because he had 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, who 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. In fact, 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 and 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 – St. Galgano of Catasta, St. Galgano of Fidentio in Funticellis, St. Galgano of Vallebuona, St. George and St. Galgano of 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. Thus, there had been a paladin, noble knight and free from the influence of ecclesiastical orders, and that was Galgano Guidotti. Ildebrando, therefore, decided to support to 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, and Montesiepi the first monastery in Tuscany in terms of political and cultural importance.

San Galgano
The Abbey of Saint Galgano

Even the powerful city of Siena had to admit the mastery of the Cistercian workers. In 1257 the monk Ugo was placed in charge of the Biccherna, the chancellery of finance of the Tuscan city. Moreover, it was precisely the Cistercian monks of St. Galgano who built part of Siena Cathedral.

The period of decline

Beginning in the second decade of the 14th century, a period of inexorable decline began for the Abbey. 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 St. 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) 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 St. Galgano was left to neglect until, in the early 20th century, it was finally decided to carry out a conservative restoration of the remaining structures.

St. Galgano

The Cistercian architecture of the Abbey of St. Galgano

The Abbey of St. Galgano reflects the sobriety established by St. 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 is able to perceive the ancient glory of the monastery, but it is now lost, the architecture is in ruins. So, the lack of the roof reveals the formal linearity of Gothic verticalism, and allows to project the imagination far beyond the dimension of space, to infinity.

The facade, bare of decoration, opens to three portals with pointed arches; 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, was never built.

A view of the side of the church shows the two orders of windows and the fine elevation of the transept.

Note the large window, originally three-mullioned, and the two side buttresses. The portal at the base led to the complex’s cemetery.

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

Of particular 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, however, 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

Just before the entrance to the church, inside an exterior niche of the cloister, a wall depiction of the Merels Board is visible. The depiction, whose symbolism is connected to the Temple of Solomon, was spread in the Middle Ages by the Knights Templar. It is unusual since it is positioned vertically, rather than horizontally.

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

A Solomon’s Knot

St. Galgano and King Arthur

The life of Galgano Guidotti, and of the sword stuck in the rock, remind us of another story, mythical and literary, with which it has unmistakable similarities. This is the matière de Bretagne, which developed since the early Middle Ages, but whose first organic 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, who first introduced the characters of Lancelot (Lancelot ou le Chevalier à la charrette, 1170-1180) and Parsifal, but especially the name 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. It should not be forgotten, however, that 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, on the other hand, 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…

King Arthur, the Grail, and the Knights of the Round Table. 15th-century French miniature by Évrard d’Espinques, from Lancelot en prose, Français 116, by Robert de Boron, Bibliothèque nationale de France.

A tradition that goes way back

Certainly there was a contamination between Arthurian sources and Galgano’s hagiographies, but 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; however, some of the themes told both in Montesiepi and in the matter of Brittany are certainly older and were most likely part of a common cultural substratum18.

In fact, in Italy there are some artistic records of the Arthurian cycle that attest to the existence of oral accounts even predating the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth. In Modena, for example, the Porta della Pescheria at the Duomo was made between 1110 and 1120. A number of chivalric scenes are masterfully depicted on the archivolt, whose protagonists are referred to by Latinized Breton names (Galvaginus, Conrad, Isdernus, Winlogee, Burmaltus, and Artus de Bretania). The door reliefs would seem to depict the liberation of Princess Winlogee (Guinevere) who is being held captive in a castle.

Porta della Pescheria at Modena Cathedral

St. Galgano,the perfect knight

It is evident, therefore, that an oral narrative tradition already existed in Italy, which had spread, most likely, along the routes of the Via Francigena between Rome and Canterbury. Here pilgrims and crusaders, aided by numerous minstrels, narrated 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, as handed down to us by hagiographies, 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 Christian hero of the Middle Ages, between the cross and the sword, the virtue and the sacrifice, the reality and the legend. Whatever the case, only one thing is certain: the sword in the stone, the only truly real one, is not in Britain, but is located 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. ↩︎
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