Abbey of San Galgano
See the Sword in the Stone
and a Church Without a Roof
Some 30 km outside Siena there is a fascinating abbey and a chapel with a legendary sword. Visit the site outside the main season and your are in for an unforgettable experience
The drive from Grosseto to the Abbey of San Galgano is one of the most boring and deserted in Tuscany. Then in the middle of nowhere there’s an avenue lined with parked cars leading up to a heap of bricks that turns out to be a decaying abbey with the Chapel of Montesiepi nearby.
According to Wikipedia the abbey and the nearby hermitage was built in the 13th century in the area, where the saint Galgano Guidotti lived in solitude and poverty until his death in 1181. Galgano Guidotto was a thuggish knight from the nearby village Chiusdino, who was saved by a vision of the Archangel Michael. The archangel led him to Montesiepi, where he met the twelve Apostles and was told to renounce all material things. Galgano replied that this would be as hard as splitting a stone, but when he plunged his sword into the ground, the rock yielded and the blade went through. This convinced Galgano that he should heed the angel’s call and he took up residence as a hermit.
Whoever Extracts the Sword Will Become Ruler of Tuscany
After his death Galgano was canonised as the patron saint of swordsmen, and a chapel was built over his tomb, where pilgrims flocked to venerate him and witness the miracle of the sword in the rock, which can still be seen in the Chapel of Montesiepi. It is submerged in the floor and protected by a shield of plexiglass under which the rock with a sword stuck up to its hilt forms a cross.
The sword in the rock is said to symbolise San Galgano’s renunciation of violence, but it can also be interpreted as a sign of divine approval of San Galgano’s spiritual journey. Some legends maintain that the sword was plunged into the stone – not by Galgano, but by an angel, making it impossible for anyone to remove it.
There are stories saying that the sword in the stone was used as a test of courage by San Galgano’s former comrades. When the knights unsuccessfully tried to remove the sword from the stone, it became an emblem of San Galgano’s bravery and devotion. This version has even imbued the sword with magical properties. It is claimed that whoever extracts the sword will become the ruler of Tuscany. No one has as yet been strong or pure enough to accomplish it.
No Roof Under Heaven
The site of San Galgano’s sword in the stone became a place of pilgrimage, and over time, the Chapel of Montesiepi grew into the magnificent Abbey of San Galgano, that was one of the most important religious and cultural centres in Tuscany during the Middle Ages.
The abbey flourished for several centuries as a centre of learning and artistic activity, but at some point it fell into disrepair due to economic decline, natural disasters, and military conflict, and the roof over the nave caved in. Today, the roofless nave of the abbey along with the cloister and scriptorium serves as a unique example of mediaeval architecture.
It is hard to describe the fascination of the cross shaped nave with walls, columns and pointed windows under clear blue Tuscan skies. Photographs without a drone do not do the site justice. The Abbey of San Galgano is a place to be experienced in person. Although you can also enjoy the sight as a backdrop in films and music videos such as ‘The English Patient’, ‘Nostalghia’ and Iron Maiden’s “Can I play with madness”.