The Legend of Montesiepi: The Sacred San Galgano Sword in the Stone
One of the most famous British folk tales is that of King Arthur and the sword in the stone. According to the various versions of the story, the sword could only be pulled out of the stone by the true king of England. A similar, though much less well-known, story can be found in the Italian region of Tuscany. Known as the legend of the San Galgano sword, it has even been suggested by some as the inspiration for the British legend.
Forging a Saint: The Origins of Saint Galgano
San Galgano is reported to be the first saint whose canonization was conducted through a formal process by the Church. Consequently, much of his life is known through the documents of this canonization process, which was carried out in 1185, just a few years after his death. Furthermore, there are also a number of works written by later authors about the saint’s life.
Galgano Guidotti was born in 1148 in Chiusdino, in the modern Italian province of Siena. His mother is recorded as Dionisia, whilst (in later works) his father’s name is said to be Guido or Guidotti. It is said that Galgano was only concerned with worldly pleasures in his early life. As a noble, he was a knight trained in the art of war and was arrogant as well as violent. All this changed, however, and the knight subsequently became a hermit.
Often portrayed as a valiant warrior saint, the Archangel Michael played a pivotal role in the tale of San Galgano. According to one version of the legend, the celestial figure appeared before the saint, unveiling a divine path towards redemption. Not only did the archangel guide Galgano, but he also shared the location he should visit to achieve salvation, imparting a sense of purpose and enlightenment that would forever alter the course of his life.
Romanesque church of Monte Siepi in Tuscany, where the San Galgano, or Sword in the Stone, is housed. (lorenza62 / Adobe Stock)
Hermits and Heavenly Encounters: San Galgano and Montesiepi’s Sacred Hill
The next morning, Galgano declared that he was going to become a hermit, and would reside in a nearby cave. As one may expect, he was ridiculed by his friends and family, and probably thought to have lost his mind. Nevertheless, the saint’s mother, Dionisia, managed to convince him to visit his fiancée for the last time before renouncing all worldly pleasures.
Clad in the attire befitting his noble lineage, Galgano embarked on a fateful journey to rendezvous with his beloved. However, destiny had a different fate in store for the saint, as an unexpected turn of events unraveled along the way. In a startling spectacle, his trusty steed reared up abruptly, casting Galgano from its back.
Yet, as if guided by an unseen hand, an enigmatic force gently hoisted San Galgano to his feet, as a melodious, seraphic voice resonated within his being, beckoning him towards Montesiepi — a sacred hill nestled near the town of Chiusdino. Obliging the celestial command, San Galgano found himself at the foot of the hill. As instructed, he stood still and his gaze was drawn irresistibly to the pinnacle of Montesiepi.
San Galgano sticking the so-called San Galgano sword in the stone, from the Museo dell'Accademia Etrusca e della città di Cortona. (Sailko / CC BY-SA 4.0)
San Galgano and the Enigmatic San Galgano Sword
San Galgano is said to have seen a vision of a round temple, along with with Jesus and Mary surrounded by the twelve Apostles. Then, the voice told him to climb the hill, and the vision faded. When San Galgano reached the top of Montesiepi, the voice spoke again, commanding him to renounce all his worldly desires.
San Galgano, however, objected, asserting that achieving such a feat would be as easy as splitting stones with a sword. Determined to demonstrate his conviction, he unsheathed his weapon and drove it forcefully into a nearby stone.
To his astonishment, the sword sliced through the rock with a seamless ease, as if a scorching blade through softened butter. If you believe the legend, the San Galgano sword has been stuck in the stone ever since. San Galgano understood the message loud and clear. Henceforth, he embraced a life of solitude as a hermit upon Montesiepi.
In the years that followed his death, a circular chapel was built on the top of Montesiepi, paying homage to the enigmatic saint and with his miraculous sword in the stone as its main attraction. The San Galgano sword in the stone has held a prominent place within the chapel's sacred confines ever since, captivating the hearts and minds of all who dared to venture within its hallowed walls.
Modern-Day Analysis of Tuscany’s Excalibur
For centuries, skepticism shrouded the San Galgano sword, casting doubt upon its authenticity as a revered relic. Historians, guided by their analytical lenses, questioned its origins and dismissed it as a potential modern forgery, undermining the belief in its sacred significance.
More recently, meticulous examination of the metal composition and careful analysis of its sword style by researchers at the University of Pavia has shown that the sword does indeed date back to the 12th century. This has resurrected faith in its origins and ratified its rightful place as a tangible relic from the past. “'We have succeeded in refuting those who maintain that it is a recent fake,” stated the Italian chemist, Luigi Garlaschelli, in The Guardian.
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The researchers also discovered, with the aid of ground-penetrating radar, that there is a cavity measuring 2 by 1 meters (about 6.56 feet by 3.28 feet) beneath the sword, perhaps containing the body of San Galgano.
Lastly, carbon-dating of another curiosity of the chapel – a pair of mummified hands – seemingly confirmed that they too date back to the 12th century. This find is interwoven with another related legend which recounts the chilling tale of an assassin in the guise of a monk, supposedly sent to Montesiepi by the Devil.
Legend has it that the saint's loyal companions, the wild wolves of the hill, sensed the treacherous intent and rose to his defense, attacking and killing the would-be murderer. In a macabre turn of events, befitting the character of the medieval era, the hands of this ill-fated assassin were mummified and put on display in the chapel as haunting relics of grisly story of the San Galgano sword.
Top image: The San Galgano sword on display in Montesiepi, Italy. Source: Superchilum / CC BY-SA 4.0
By Wu Mingren