The town of San Quirico and the spiritual struggle of a pilgrim

in , updated on

The town of San Quirico stands out in the hills that mark the boundary between the Orcia and Asso valleys in Tuscany. These lands, shaped by verdant landscapes, still inspire suggestions of a distant and evocative past. There were echoes there of chivalric deeds, stonemasons at work, pilgrims dragging their weary steps over dusty paths, seeking refreshment and penance.

The streets of San Quirico reflect the original Medieval plan, when the village was frequented by wayfarers who travelled along the Via Francigena. Sigeric, archbishop of Canterbury, walked the ancient way between 990 and 994, and attests to the presence of a town named Sce Quiric. The church of Santa Maria Assunta and the Collegiate church today represent evidence of the village importance in the Middle Ages. Their rich symbolism hints at a dimension of spiritual knowledge far from the precepts of appearance and material possession of the modernity.

The town of San Quirico and the church of Santa Maria Assunta

The present Romanesque church of Santa Maria Assunta dates back to the mid-12th century, although it was built on a pre-existing construction1. In fact, two carte promissionis in 1092 attest to its co-ownership between the Sienese diocese of Torri and the Canons of Arezzo Cathedral. Following an unpaid sum of money due between the two parties, in 1142-1143 a college of cardinals transferred its entire property to the Abbey of Torri. The church of Santa Maria Assunta shows similarities with the nearby site of Sant’Antimo, suggesting the employment of the same craftsmen.

Stylistic description

The building has a thick facade wall made of squared travertine stones, which opens on the left side through a portal. The entrance has a wide prothyrum with a pinnacle with Corinthian columns and a round arch. It faces just onto the ancient pavement of the Via Francigena, nowadays Via Dante Alighieri, not far from the access to the Horti Leonini.

Two corbels, one with the protome of a lion devouring a person, the other with the same animal in profile, rest on the jambs of the portal, just below the lintel. This is a typical iconography of that time: the anthropophagous lion destroys the man’s flesh and is an image of death but is also a promise of resurrection in Christ. Nevertheless, there is always a figurative ambivalence in the Medieval bestiary, whereby even “the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour”2.

The apse of the church is enriched by corbels, carved with zoomorphic motifs, and by the rhythmicity of hanging arches; above it rises the bell gable.

Leaning against a narrow street that separates the church from the front buildings, the facade appears modest, bare, and invites a subdued contemplation before entering the house of God.

Santa Maria Assunta has a rectangular plan with a nave and a wooden truss roof. The interior is characterized by a refined sobriety. The soft light barely penetrates from some narrow single-light windows on the sides and at the apse.

Collegiate Church of Saints Quirico and Giulitta

The town’s major house of worship, Collegiate Church of Saints Quirico and Giulitta, can be attributed to the late 12th century, but it was later renovated in the Gothic style. The church was probably erected on a pre-existing early Medieval building, a parish church with a baptistery.

The facade of the Collegiate Church

A monumental portal covers a large portion of the gabled facade, with an eight-ray rose window and pointed hanging arches, and is probably the oldest part of the building. It complies with those specific Medieval canons that aimed to achieve knowledge by means of sculpture, and it is the true symbolic core of the Collegiate Church. However, the entrance reveals the influence of Lombard Romanesque stylistic features, and it could be ascribed in part to craftsmen from that area, such as the Comacine masters.

The portal has a wide prothyrum. Two stylophore lions, crouching and depicted in the act of clutching their prey no longer recognizable because worn out by time – represent the gatekeepers. They mark the moment of passage between the secular world and the house of God and, as the image of Christ, admonish the faithful about the sacredness of the place. On each of the lions rests the base of four knotted sandstone columns. They symbolize the union between earth and heaven, between the microcosm and macrocosm; in Christian tradition they represent the coexistence of Christ’s human and divine natures. Taut zoomorphic elements connect the capitals to the archivolt, which is rounded. Finally, ten small columns with acanthus leaf capitals run laterally to the portal opening. They are surmounted by a frieze with zoomorphic figures.

In the center of the lunette is depicted in high relief a figure of a man, probably Quirico, seated on the throne of the saints. This finding is confirmed by the presence of the letters S and Q engraved on the sides of the statue.

The spiritual struggle at the town of San Quirico

The sculptural illustration on the lintel, which represents a uniqueness, is of considerable interest. Indeed, it is not easy to understand the original symbolic meaning of the two beasts facing each other, perhaps contending for prey. The beast on the left could be a Christological figure since it is surrounded by eight rosettes – and eight is the number of eternal life – while the other, from which some snake heads are protruding, is the devil. Certainly the subject of contention is man and his soul.

The same symbolism is repeated at the corbels on the jambs, where the theme of struggle is present. In addition, the prothyrum archivolt features a sculptural depiction of the Flower of Life, a symbol of resurrection.

Southern side

The southern side of the Collegiate Church faces the Via Francigena, and two splendid Gothic portals were built in the 13th century. The larger one, which gives access to the right aisle, is flanked by splayed mullioned windows with two lights, giving a feeling of vibrant harmony. Moreover, the prothyrum with pinnacle is supported by two sculpted caryatids, attributed to Giovanni Pisano (1288), resting on stylophore lions. The frieze that runs along the architrave is formed by a spiral trellis, on the sides of which are figures of eagles and other animals. The pinnacle of the prothyrum hosts the inscription Iohes in Gothic characters, which could correspond to the name of the master builder, justly Giovanni Pisano.

Instead, the second side portal, which gives access to the transept of the church, dates from 1298. An inscription on the architrave attests that it was the work of a certain Lotto, a parish priest of San Quirico. The portal, without any decoration, allows us to appreciate an interesting combination of Romanesque and Gothic, contrasting the round arch with the marked verticalism of the spire.

Interior of the Collegiate Church in the town of San Quirico

The interior of the church was renovated in Baroque style in the 1700s, and at the end of the same century it was decided to erect the bell tower. Even the apse is not the original one, but the old semicircular structure was rebuilt in 1653. The plan has a Latin cross with a nave; a large arch marks the beginning of the chancel. Further, the wooden truss roof of the nave is contrasted by the ribbed vaults of the transept and chancel.

The symbolism of the churches of San Quirico d’Orcia seems to us obscure and difficult to understand today. However, in the Middle Ages it was well familiar to pilgrims who walked along the Via Francigena on their way to Jerusalem. It is a whole set of symbolic elements that primarily refer to the eschatological aspect of existence: man is at the center of a struggle between transcendent powers. He is contended between Christ whom, by his dual human and divine nature, wants to lead him to resurrection, and the devil. The Medieval journey is characterized by this struggle at every step: the pilgrim abandons the material securities of life and ideally heads with Christ toward the heavenly Jerusalem.

Samuele Corrente Naso

Map of places


  1. A. Peroni, G. Tucci, Nuove ricerche su Sant’Antimo, Alinea editrice, 2008. ↩︎
  2. 1 Pietro 5, 8. ↩︎


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.

error: Content is protected !!