San Galgano

04 . 01 . 2019

An itinerary out of the classic breathtaking views of Tuscany is the legend that resides in the hermitage of Montesiepi in the municipality of Chiusdino, just 30 km south of Siena.

I often took my children there when they were young and they were fascinated by the story of King Arthur, as inside the circular-shaped hermitage, in Romanesque-Sienese style, there is a sword stuck in the rock …

The construction dates back a few years after the death of San Galgano in 1181, while the fascinating Abbey of San Galgano which is only 200 meters away was built from 1218 on the initiative of the Cistercian monks, who revolutionized the spirituality of the time sanctioning the passage of monasticism of the hermits to a more “earthly” religiosity.

If the first building has a character of intimacy, the second expresses all its grandeur even if it is now roof-less. The  abbey reached its maximum power in the fourteenth century as a result of a black plague that hit most of the monks, and lost autonomy after a long dispute with Siena, and in 1576 it seems that there remained only one monk. There were several attempts at restoration, but soon after also neglect: the sale of roof lead, the looting fixtures and furnishings. In 1768 there was the collapse of the roof that did not diminish the importance of the Abbey, but rather exalts the articulation and the architectural elegance of the lines that rush towards the open sky, a hymn to spirituality.

But let’s go back to our sword in the rock: legend has it that Galgano Guidotti, born in 1148 from a noble family, after a  not really monastic life, had two apparitions of the archangel Michael:

In the first vision his destiny as a knight was traced under the protection of the archangel himself, while in the second the archangel invited him to follow him.

Following the archangel, Galgano crossed a very long bridge beneath which there was a river and a mill in operation, whose movement symbolizes the transience of worldly things.

After crossing the bridge and crossing a flowery meadow, which gave off an intense and sweet perfume, he reached Monte Siepi, where, in a round chapel, Galgano met Jesus, the twelve apostles and the Virgin Mary, who urged him to lead a hermitic and penitential life, and promised him the protection of Mary, as queen of angels: that was the moment of conversion proper, after two years from the first appearance.

The mother, though devout, in order not to lose her son, procured for him as a bride a young and handsome daughter of one of the noblest families of Civitella. Galgano, unwilling to marry, left from Chiusdino to Civitella, at the beginning of December 1180  and twicewhile travlling the horse stopped and refused to continue. The second time, only after an intense prayer addressed to the Lord, appeared to him Michael who took the reins of the horse and led him to Monte Siepi, a few kilometers from Chiusdino, in the same place where the vision had led him to meet the apostles. Here Galgano, could not cut the timber with the sword to make a cross: throwing the sword on the ground, it stuck up to the hilt in a rock, from which no one was able to extract it.

Then he turned his cloak into a habit and as such wore it.

Thus began his life as a hermit, eating wild herbs and sleeping on the bare earth.

The narration of the history of Galgano is rich in symbolism and the atmosphere seems almost magical. The sword, an instrument of war and death, is transformed into an instrument of peace and hope; the mantle, pride of every knight, becomes humble and poor eremitical dress. It is almost an anticipation of the adventure of St. Francis. Galgano was the knight who abandoned his world, disgusted by the wickedness he committed and those he saw constantly committed, to devote himself to a life of hermitage and penance in the search for that peace, which his time did not allow, and that desire and contemplation of God that only ascetic life could allow.

Galgano is a saint with an initiatory value: his hardships to achieve redemption make him an archetypal figure, a reference for all those saints, starting precisely from Saint Francis, who find the way of salvation in asceticism but also the prototype for many orders of chivalry.

According to some, there is a connection between San Galgano and King Arthur in the same Val di Merse crossed by the Francigena road linking France where Chrétine de Troyes lived the great Breton writer of Perceval and then of King Arthur and Tuscany where the sword is located, others were the hermit, William of Malavalle, who settled near Castiglione della Pescaia, to make known the history of Galgano in France. According to some hypotheses William of Malavalle could be not only of French origin but one of the kings of Aquitania who retired after a crusade. The one connected to the circle of the hermit William is just one of the many hypotheses on the connection between the figure of San Galgano and the stories of Brittany. The true myth of the sword in the rock would have been born in Tuscany at the end of 1100 even if according to the legend King Arthur would have lived many centuries before …