Monday, 12 December 2016

San Galgano: The True Story of the Sword in the Stone

Is the 12th century sword embedded in the rock in the Montesiepi Rotunda, near the Abbey of San Galgano in Chiusdino, Tuscany, the Real Sword in the Stone that inspired Arthurian legend?

The Ruins of Sanctity
The ruins of religious houses are not an uncommon sight in England and Wales as a result of The Dissolution of the Monasteries during Henry VIII's split from Rome in the 16th century when his henchmen pulled down abbey after abbey. However, it is not such a common finding on the continent, but about 25 miles south-west of Sienna, Italy, in the isolated Valley of the River Merse, is the spectacular ruins of the Cistercian Abbey of San Galgano (Abbazia di San Galgano).

San Galgano Abbey
San Galgano was the first Gothic abbey in Italy, built between 1224 and 1288, a daughter house of Casamari Abbey in the Province of Frosinone, Lazio, in turn a daughter house of Saint Bernard of Clairvaux's Abbey in northeastern France. As Tuscany's first full Gothic church the San Galgano Abbey was to be the model for the later Cathedral of Siena.

There was no 'Dissolution' in Italy, but the abbey of San Galgano started to fall in to decline from around the mid-15th century when the abbots became “Commendatari”, political appointees, who were at liberty to divert a portion of the abbey's revenues for their own private use.

The bells are said to have gone by the 16th century, when the abbot, Girolamo Vitelli, then in charge of just five monks, sold the last of the Abbey's possessions, including the lead from the abbey roof. Removal of the roof was a primary cause of structural decay and one of the first acts of the Royal Commissioners during the Dissolution as evidenced in the abbey ruins across England and Wales, immediately rendering the abbey largely unusable, thus the abandoned building quickly becoming an open quarry for local builders.

By the 17th century San Galgano Abbey was abandoned. In the early 18th century the 36 metre high bell-less tower collapsed bringing down a large part of the unprotected rotting roof timbers and masonry. However, from the beginning of the 20th century restoration and maintenance work was carried out so that today the ruins of the Cistercian Abbey of San Galgano are one of the most popular attractions of Tuscany.

The Hermitage on the Hill
The original nucleus of the Cistercian monastic complex at San Galgano was the Romanesque Hermitage on the hill of Montesiepi above the Abbey in the Merse valley. The Hermitage, also known as the Montesiepi Rotunda, was built between 1182 and 1185 as the mausoleum of Saint Galgano (1148-1181) shortly after his death, over the hut where he spent the last year of his life. At the centre of the Rotunda is the stone where Galgano planted his sword. As tales of cures at the site spread the little circular chapel on the hill soon become a magnet for pilgrims seeking miracles.

Monteseipi Rotunda
The circular church of the Montesiepi Rotunda is said to emulate the ancient Etruscan tombs of Vetulonia and Volterra, but the architect was seemingly inspired by Castel Sant'Angelo (the tomb of the Roman Emperor Hadrian). A roof was later constructed over the semi-spherical dome at Montesiepi, hiding it from external view but providing a spectacular internal view of 24 concentric circles of alternating white stone and terracotta forming the chapel ceiling, reminiscent of the Dome of the Pantheon in Rome, a spiral ascending to Heaven. To the Medieval knight the dome of the Montesiepi Rotunda must have been reminiscent of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem which was enclosed during the time of the Crusades within a Rotunda.

By the early 1200's a brick and stone atrium was built onto the circular chapel, with cornice decorated with human and bovine heads. By the 1300's the bell tower was added. As the cult of Saint Galgano grew, the Rotunda was embellished by the nobility with the addition of a ogival-style  brick Chapel on the north side around 1340. Frescoes were added to the interior by by the Sienese  master Ambrogio Lorenzetti, some of his work here has been restored and is still visible today.

Lorenzetti chapel Maestà
The paintings cover all sides of the so-called Lorenzetti chapel on two levels. The main feature is a Maestà; the Virgin Mary is enthroned with the infant Jesus surrounded by Angels and Saints. Eve lies at her feet holding a scroll. In addition to Saints Peter, Paul and the two Johns, Pope Lucius III the Saints depicted in the Maestà include two men dressed in white robes (cuccula) identified as the Cistercian monks St. Robert from Molesme and St. Bernardo of Clairvaux, with St. Guglielmo (William) from Malavalle, the hermit from whom St. Galgano drew his inspiration and whose life shares many similarities.

Galgano offers the sword in the stone to the Archangel Michael
Another fresco in the Lorenzetti chapel shows a young St. Galgano offering the Archangel Michael a sword embedded in a stone. The Archangel in turn beckons the young man towards the Maestà where Mary, the infant Jesus and the Saints await.

Over time the Hermitage of Montesiepi eventually became too small for the increasing numbers of pilgrims to the site. As a consequence, in 1218, the Bishop of Volterra commissioned the construction of a new Abbey in the plain below, just five minutes walk downhill from the Hermitage.

The Legend of Saint Galgano
Who was this Tuscan Saint who's life inspired the building of such beautiful buildings and paintings on this remote hill at  Montesiepi? 

Galgano was born at Chiusdino near Sienna, Tuscany, in the year 1148 to a noble family, son of an illiterate feudal lord, Guidotto Guidotti and his wife Dionisia. As a young knight he spent his days hunting and generally abusing the abundances that wealth brought, Galgano was well known for his arrogance, selfishness and thirst for trouble, his parents tried every means to bring him back to the right path. When Galgano's father died he moved to Sienna to a home better suited to his lifestyle of entertainment and passion. During this time he experienced his first vision of the Archangel Michael. In this vision he also saw his mother to whom St Michael was speaking, encouraging her to consent to her son joining the heavenly militia. Galgano saw his mother bow and nod her consent, then saw himself follow the footsteps of St Michael.

After this vision Galgano grew restless in Sienna and returned to his mother's home at Chiusdino and for the following five years was said to have led an obscure and penitent life. It was during this period that Galgano experienced his second vision of St Michael. The Archangel told Galgano he should embark on the path to Montesiepi, a solitary hill top covered in thick forest about four miles from Chiusdino. Once there he should offer up every worldly comfort as a sacrifice for his past sins.

On hearing of this vision Galgano's mother was disturbed at the prospect of loosing her son in her advancing years and wanted him to maintain the family succession. On taking counsel with her relatives they determined that they should find him a wife, such a young lady that Galgano would not be able to refuse.

About 20 miles from Chiusdino lived a very wealthy man by the name of Antonnio Brizzi in a grand castle at Civitella Marittima. He had a beautiful daughter named Polissena who was to be Galgano's bride and his mother's hope of keeping Galgano from Montesiepi. Galgano resisted his family's intentions for a long time but eventually agreed to see Polissena, forgetting the calling of the Archangel.

Galgano set out for Civitella Marittima when, about 4 miles from Chiusdino, in the plain of Morella his horse suddenly stopped and refused to go any further. Galgano dismounted and fell to his knees, recognising his failure he pleaded for forgiveness when the Archangel Michael appeared to him again and commanded that he followed him to Montesiepi where he should do harsh penance. From that moment on Galgano was enrolled in the army of Heaven. In the vision the Archangel guided him down a narrow and difficult path to Montesiepi where he was eventually greeted by the twelve apostles in front of a circular-shaped temple.

Inside the Rotunda
Overwhelmed Galgano drew his sword and said, “How you deign O merciful Lord to show such favour to a miserable sinner! Ah, but I could more easily plunge my sword into this stone, than obtain forgiveness for my many sins.” Galgano then thrust his sword into the rock until the whole of the blade was immersed up to the hilt forming a cross and altar to pray at. The sword was driven so deeply and with such great force, that only the handle remained visible on the surface of the rock, and is still there today, some 800 years later.

From the first day of December in 1180 this isolated place on Montesiepi, about 25 miles from the monastic community founded by Guglielmo of Malavalle, became Galgano's residence as a hermit. Disciples soon followed him there but he found ruling them was troublesome. During 1181 he visited the seven churches of Rome and then Pope Alexander III to discuss the problem, but he never found the solution as he did not survive the harsh life of a hermit following his return to the hermitage at Montesiepi; after falling ill, Galgano died on the 3rd December.

On hearing of Galgano's visit to Rome the bishops of Massa and Volterra scaled the summit of the Montesiepi to visit the hermitage. As they approached they saw Galgano kneeling down. Assuming the hermit was in deep prayer they stood back so as not to disturb him. After sometime they made some noise but Galgano remained motionless. They entered the hermit's hut to find him still and cold, he had passed away. They buried Galgano next to his sword at Montesiepi. As news of Galgano's death spread people began to journey to Montesiepi. Miracles were soon reported at the site; a leper was instantly cured and a woman's injured son was healed; soon visitors were proclaiming the sanctity of Galgano.

As we have seen above, the Romanesque round church, the Montesiepi Rotunda, was built between 1182 and 1185, within five years of Galgano's death, enclosing Galgano's tomb and his sword stuck in the rock. A Papal commission was set up in 1185 and Galgano was canonised by 1190. In that same year the Cistercians took control of Montesiepi and most of Galgano's followers then left the hill top spreading throughout Tuscany becoming Augustinian hermits. By 1220 the Cistercians built a large monastery (San Galgano Abbey) beneath the hill of the hermitage and claimed Galgano as a Cistercian Saint with Feast day on 3rd December.

The miracles claimed at Galgano's tomb attracted many pilgrims along the Via Francigena, the ancient route of pilgrimage that in medieval times connected Canterbury to Rome and on to Jerusalem via the ports of Puglia (Apulia) at the 'heel' of Italy. Indeed, the Via Francigena is first documented in the Actum Clusio, a 9th century parchment in the nearby Abbey of San Salvatore in Sienna.

A time later Galgano's body was exhumed by the faithful who wanted relics of the Saint's body. The head and face was found to be incorrupt and the blond hair still growing. The head was severed from the body and kept in the chapel and spent time on the altar of the Abbey were it was venerated for many years. The remains of the body were placed in a lead sealed casket and re-interred. Frequently Galgano's relics were carried through Sienna in procession. Around the year 1300 the relics are said to have been placed in the monastery of St Prosper of Sienna where Polissena, the bride promised to Galgano, was vested as a nun. The head remained here for a short time before being taken to the cathedral. In 1477 the head was returned to the Abbey of San Galgano at the request of the monks there. In 1550 the head was brought to the church and monastery of St Mary of the Angels by the Porta Romana, where it rests today. The hair is said to have been cut many times for relics yet always grown back as attested by Gregory Lombardelli's life of San Galgano, published 1577.

The True Sword in the Stone? 
Today the Hermitage of  Montesiepi houses one of the most enigmatic relics of the entire Tuscany region: the sword in the stone of Saint Galgano. At the centre of the tiled floor of the Rotunda is the famous sword of Galgano set in a block of rock.

Galgano's sword
From the 18th century up to current times, Galgano's sword in the stone was considered a fake, just a local medieval legend. But all doubts about the authenticity of the sword have been swept away when scientists from the University of Pavia, led by Luigi Garlaschelli, carried out a study on the sword and found the metallurgy was of typical 12th century composition, with no trace of modern alloys. The cavity in the rock follows the outline of the blade exactly, a feat entirely beyond medieval technology; indeed, even a sword manufactured today could not produce such an exact entrance into the boulder.

Garlaschelli's team also located a cavity beneath the rock where it is conjectured that the Saint's body may lie. Carbon-dating confirmed that two mummified hands in the Rotunda at Montesiepi also date from the 12th century.

The sword in the stone in the Rotunda at Montesiepi is indeed an enigma in its own right. But aside from the sword itself, there is another extraordinary aspect to this story. The sight is evocative to say the least and immediately brings to mind the well-known legend of King Arthur drawing the sword from the stone to prove his rightful kingship.

The 'Sword in the Stone' is one of the most well known episodes of the Arthurian legend but its origins remain a mystery: no satisfactory provenance is yet known; it did not derive from the Celtic west and, as much as some authors may try, no satisfactory parallel exists among the eastern tribes of the Steppes. As such the 'Sword in the Stone' is entirely absent from the earliest Arthurian tales such as The Spoils of Annwn, Culhwch and Olwen, Geoffrey of Monmouth's Historia Regum Britanniae, and the chronicles of Wace and Layamon.

We must therefore consider the possibility that the Arthurian legend of the Sword in the Stone could have originated from Montesiepi in Tuscany and later transmitted via pilgrim routes, such as the Via Francigena, to France and introduced in to the famous legend of King Arthur by writers of Arthurian Romance. This is a plausible hypothesis: Galgano's cross-shaped sword has been proven to date back to around 1170; the sword in the stone does not enter Arthurian Romance until the work of the Burgundian poet Robert de Boron in his tale entitled 'Merlin', c.1200. It then appears in just about every account thereafter to the last great Arthurian tale by Sir Thomas Malory. Could this be the origin of the Sword in the Stone from the Arthurian legend?

Galgano's journey, described as Dantean by Franco Cardini (Arthur in Hagiography: The Legend of San Galgano), along a narrow and difficult path, across a raging river, through a cave to emerge at Monteseipi has been compared to Lancelot's crossing of the Sword Bridge in Chrétien de Troyes' Lancelot, the Knight of the Cart (le Chevalier de la Charrette) where the river below it is swift and fierce, black and raging like a whirlpool in a storm. Chrétien's version was written between 1175 and 1181, but the earliest tale of the abduction of Guinevere appears in the early 12th-century Life of Gildas by Caradoc of Llancarfan. This ancient myth of abduction and the hero's journey to the Otherworld to retrieve his lover can be found in Orpheus and Eurydice, the abduction of Europa and the Rape of Persephone.

But this is not legend, it is history; the account of Galgano and the sword is gleaned from the hearing of the canonisation of Galgano. Indeed, Galgano was the first saint of the Church to receive a formal process of beatification, which included a public debate and testimonies from witnesses.

The Acts of beatification, which include the story of the sword in the stone, are dated c.1185, several years before the tale entered Arthurian Romance, which as we have seen above has no known provenance. Could St Galgano's tale be the origin of the Sword in the Stone?

The True Sword in the Stone?
Indeed, a study by the Italian medieval historian Mario Moiraghi argues that the story of St Galgano and his sword is the origin of the myth of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, predating Chrétien’s 'Story of the Grail' and identical to Wolfram von Eschenbach's story of 'Parsival' on more than 30 specific points.

Moiraghi claims Galgano's story was embellished by medieval troubadours as it spread from Tuscany. Moiraghi adds that the name Galgano bears a close resemblance to 'Galvano' (later Gawain), the first Knight, who often appears in the early Arthurian legends possessing the mystical sword Excalibur, Arthur's nephew and at one time his ambassador to Rome.

Moiraghi said that the testimony of Dionisa, St. Galgano's mother, delivered to the panel of cardinals considering his canonization, before 1190, contains a set of facts identical to the legend of Perceval, and the Story of the Grail, the knight who overcomes all obstacles, the central role of the sword, including all the essential elements of the Round Table myth. Moiraghi's theory that the legend of San Galgano predates rather than copies the story of Arthur is supported by the tests carried out by Luigi Garlaschelli on the sword.

It must be admitted that the story of Saint Galgano does contain many of the essential elements of the earliest Grail stories. The Rotunda at Monteseipi has been described as an inverted chalice, an allusion to the Holy Grail, or perhaps the Round Table. In addition we have a Hermit's chapel which we find in the Grail stories (Perlesevaus) and a severed head on a platter as one of the Grail Hallows (Peredur, the Welsh version of Chretien de Troyes).

Is it possible the Arthurian legend had spread to Tuscany and influenced the tale of Saint Galgano?The Modena carving (before 1136) and the Otranto mosaic (c.1165) are evidence of at least oral transmission of the Matter of Britain to Southern Italy prior to Saint Galgano's exploits. Yet, there is no evidence of Arthurian literature in Tuscany before Galgano.

Although Galgano, or Galganus, may be a corruption of Galvanus, the Italian name of the Grail hero Gawain, and this may well be the precursor to the legend of The Sword in The Stone, the name 'Galgano' was quite popular in Tuscany. And we must consider the possibility that the name may be a corruption of 'Gargano' as in Monte Sant' Angelo Gargana, Puglia, where the first recorded apparition of St Michael the Archangel occurred in 492 AD.

Copyright © 2016 Edward Watson

Torchj Dei Gius Galetti, The True Story of the Sword in the Stone: A Compendium on the Life of St. Galgano, translated from the Italian edition of 1835 by Ryan Grant, Mediatrix Press, 2014.
David Farmer, Oxford Dictionary of Saints, Oxford University Press, Fifth revised edition 2011.
Vito Albergo, San Galgano Abbey, Padplaces, 2015.
Mario Moiraghi, L’enigma di san Galgano, (The Enigma of San Galgano. The sword in the stone between history and myth), Àncora, 2003. (in Italian)
Franco Cardini, Arthur in Hagiography: The Legend of San Galgano, in Arthurian Literature of the Italians, edited by F. Regina Psaki and Gloria Allaire, Wales University Press, 2014.

Edited 13/12/16

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