An Abbey and a Saint with a sword

26 Mar

We’ve been there twice, and it’s been a pleasure, always….Chiusdino is located in a magnificent Tuscany location, overlooking the Merse Valley and the Metalliferous Hills amid woods and pastureland. The position and structure of the fortified mediaeval castle demonstrate an evident defensive strategy. Chiusdino was governed by the Bishops of Volterra and subsequently (13th century) by the Commune of Siena. Here you can admire the suggestive Abbey of San Galgano, now completely ruined. (Some pics are mine, some by my friend E who was there with me each time).

The Abbey of San Galgano was founded by Cistercian monks from Casamari Abbey. They dedicated the new foundation to St. Galganus (d.1181), a hermit who lived on the hill above the abbey. The abbey was constructed around 1224-88. The monks of San Galgano were exceptionally powerful and played a major role in the affairs of nearby cities. Their many duties included resolving disputes between such cities as Siena and Volterra and even overseeing the construction of Siena Cathedral. The richness of S.Galgano and the good relationships with Siena attracted on it the incursions of the Florentine armies that, together with other political events, carried to a rapid decadence of the abbey since from the first half of 15th century: in the 1550 only five monks were in the abbey and at the beginning of 17th century only one old and poor monk still lived between its walls, already in ruin. On the 6 of January 1786 the bell tower, with its 36 meters high, collapsed sweeping up great part of the roof of the Church. In the 1789 the great Abbey was definitively abandoned and become an enormous quarry of stones and columns for all the buildings of the zone. Fortunately, from the beginning of this century, many jobs of restoration and maintenance have been undertaken, so that today the ruins of Saint Galgano, by now without more traces of the roof, are one of the most visited medieval monuments in Tuscany.

Modeled on the mother house at Cîteaux (France), San Galgano Abbey is a prime example of Cistercian architecture. Like most Cistercian abbeys, it is austerely Romanesque in style, except for the graceful pointed arches that would become a hallmark of Gothic architecture. The wide west facade, made of brick with stone cladding on the lower half, has three portals and two lancet windows. The east end is in the unique Cistercian style, with a flat facade rather than a round apse. The east end has round window above and small pointed lancet windows below. The walls of the abbey church remain fully intact, with only the roof open to the sky. The capitals of the nave are finely carved with simple foliage designs, some of which include a small bird or human face.

The original nucleus of the monastic complex Cistercian of Saint Galgano (Galgano Guidotti 1148-1181) is constituted by the hermitage of Montesiepi, built in Roman style as mausoleum of the Saint between the 1182 and the 1185. Its greater particularity is the so-called ‘the Rotunda of Saint Galgano’ with a unique, for the constructions of that time, plan. It encloses, beyond to the tomb of the saint, the famous rock with the sword. Although at a first look it can seem an emulation of ancient Etruscan tombs of Populonia, Vetulonia and Volterra, the architect responsible of its construction inspired itself to Castel S.Angelo and the Pantheon of Rome. In the following centuries the Rotunda was strongly manumitted, but the perfect restoration of the year 1924 brought it back to the original aspect. The dome is constructed using alternated rows of white stone and bricks. With the growth of the interest in the cult of Saint Galgano many rich nobles wanted to contribute to the embellishment of the Rotunda, in the year 1340 was begun the construction of a Chapel on the north side, then frescoed by the great artist Ambrogio Lorenzetti, he’s paintings are still today in part visible thanks to a careful restoration work that has arrested their degrade.

The inside of the domed roof is constructed with 24 concentric circles of alternating white stone and terracotta.

Dating back to the first half of the 14th century and very deteriorated, the fresco was detached during a restoration in 1966. Under that, a sinopia was discovered, quite different from the final picture. This preparatory drawing is a typical scene of conturbatio. The Virgin looks so perturbed by the apparition of the angel, that, instinctively, her arms clasp a near column. In the finished depiction, Mary’s hands are folded on her breast, to signify a full assent to her exceptional lot.

Galgano Guidotti was a knight born to rich parents in 1148. Galgano led a ruthless life in his early years, but later abandoned it in favour of a pious hermitage in the place now known as Rotonda di Montesiepi. His mother Dionigia reported that Galgano had two visions, both involving Archangel Michael: in the first vision the Archangel told Galgano that he was going to be protected by the Archangel himself. In the second vision, Galgano was following the Archangel and they arrived to the hill of Monte Siepi where they met the twelve Apostles and the Creator himself. After the visions, Galgano’s horse refused to obey his orders to leave the top Monte Siepi where his vision happened. Convinced that this was a sign, Galgano decided to plant a cross. Since he had no way to make one of wood, he planted his sword in the ground. Immediately the sword became one piece with the ground so that nobody could remove it. Later on, he performed some miracles and died in 1181. He was declared Saint in 1185.
It has been assumed that the Tuscan “sword in the stone” is a fake, made to echo the Celtic legend of King Arthur.
But a study by the medieval historian Mario Moiraghi suggests that the story of St Galgano and his sword was the origin of the myth of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, embellished by medieval troubadours as it spread from Tuscany.

In the spring of the 1181 Galgano visited the Pope Alessandro III visited probably to get the approval of his congregation. During his absence three envious men, that the tradition beginning from the XIV century has identified with some monks of the near Abbey of Serene, carried on an attack against him, destroying the hut and breaking the sword. For divine intervention all and three men were punished: two of them died, to the third one a wolf tore the arms, so to give him time to repent him and to tell the prodigy. The arms are still preserved in the hermitage of Montesiepi.


Posted by on March 26, 2015 in Uncategorized


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2 responses to “An Abbey and a Saint with a sword

  1. Gattina

    March 26, 2015 at 5:20 pm

    Very interesting post and beautiful photos !

  2. Pat @ Mille Fiori Favoriti

    March 27, 2015 at 5:00 am

    The abby is still hauntingly beautiful despite being in ruins, and the dome on the Cistercian of Saint Galgano is amazing! The sord in the stone does remind me of King Arthur.


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