Wednesday, February 18, 2015

The Sword in the Stone and the Open-Air Abbey

Chiusdino, Montesiepi and  
San Galgano

Chiusdino today
An hour and a half's drive south of Le Ripe, in the Val di Merse, lie several medieval treasures which attract visitors all year round.

reconstruction of Chiusdino as it might have looked between the 12th and 13th centuries, around the time Galgano Guidotti lived there
The medieval nucleus of the hilltop town of Chiusdino, the Hermitage of Montesiepi and the Abbey of San Galgano are linked by their association with a 12th century knight who said farewell to arms in order to become a hermit.
San Galgano, Ambrogio Lorenzetti 1338-49,Sala dei Nove, Palazzo Pubblico Siena

Born in Chiusdino in 1148 or thereabouts, Galgano Guidotti, son of minor nobles and a knight, according to legend led a violent and dissolute youth - until he finally saw the light. 
copy of bas-relief by Giovanni di Agostino on the wall of San Galgano's house in Chiusdino, original in Museum of Siena, depicting Galgano being led by Archangel Michael to Montesiepi
Inspired by visions involving the Archangel Michael, at the end of 1180 Galgano crossed the hills and plains near Chiusdino until he reached a small hill called Montesiepi twelve kilometres from his home town.  This, his visions told him, was where he must become a hermit.
Hermitage of Montesiepi
Chiusdino is 560 metres above sea level and noticeably cold in winter, particularly when the north wind is blowing. Montesiepi stands at 340 metres; Galgano's visions led him to a rather more comfortable location than one normally expects for a hermit, even if he was said to be living off roots and herbs and sleeping in the open.
San Galgano's sword thrust in the rock of Montesiepi; recent tests at Pavia University point to its being a genuine late 12th century sword.  It is protected by a plexiglass dome.
According to legend, when Galgano could not find wood with which to make a cross, he created one by driving his sword into the bare rock, a sort of reverse-Arthurian gesture which symbolized his renunciation of a worldly, warlike life.
beautiful circular stone and brick dome of Montesiepi Chapel
While Galgano was on a pilgrimage to Rome in 1181 three envious monks tried to extract the sword in order to steal it; they succeeded only in breaking it and were subsequently punished by divine providence (one drowned, one was struck by lightning and a third carried off by a wolf, although he was saved by invoking Galgano).
the Hermitage complex today: the round chapel is the original structure built at the end of the 12th century to honour Galgano's resting place and his improvised cross.
On his return, guided by supernatural voices, he managed to restore his sword to its former state, stronger than ever. Thanks to this and a series of other miracles it took only four years after his death in 1181 for him to be canonized by Pope Lucius III.
torch ring with sword motif from outer wall of chapel
It is worth noting that Galgano was a penitent hermit for a very short time: he reached Montesiepi at the end of 1180 and died on November 30th 1181, during which time he also made a pilgrimage to Rome (which must have taken at least a month or two).
modern bookstand in chapel also sports the sword motif; considering that the hermit was trying to give up his warlike ways this emphasis seems vaguely perverse
His brief career as a hermit not only led to Galgano being rapidly canonized, but also prompted the foundation of a Cistercian community in his name since
Galgano had had connections with the Cistercians (the Order founded by Saint Bernard at Clairvaux). By 1185 the beautiful Byzantine-style (some say Etruscan tholos) chapel had been built on Montesiepi, with the famed sword at its centre.
the chapel's tiny, peaceful (circular) interior

Later, in the 14th century, a small rectangular chapel was added at the side; it was decorated with frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti which are sadly dilapidated today.
Lorenzetti at Montesiepi, one of the better-preserved frescoes
Not long after and far more ambitiously, planning began for a large monastery to be established on the plain below Montesiepi. In 1218 building was begun, by 1262 the abbey was almost complete and in 1288 it was consecrated. The abbey was the first Gothic church and the largest Cistercian structure in Tuscany.  
arable lands, hills and river valley
Cistercians always settled in the vicinity of rivers, woods, arable land and potential transport routes. Still today, the abbey is surrounded  by a constant water supply, fields of cereal crops, a ring of wooded hills, and is only a wagon-ride from the Maremmana road to the sea, north and south.

the cypress-lined approach to the Abbey of San Galgano

These Cistercians had a good business plan; they thrived for roughly a century, taking over the lands formerly belonging to the Benedictines, increasing their wealth and influence thanks to the patronage of emperors and kings, until even the Republic of Siena  consolidated its ties with the monastery.   

the Abbey today: still massive after all these years

Still, the monks reckoned without famine (1329), plague (1348), war and sacking by mercenaries. By 1474 the monks were forced to retire to Palazzo San Galgano in Siena, abandoning the monastery forever. 
the chapter house
Left in the hands of caretaker abbots, the abbey fell into disrepair; the lead on the abbey's roof was removed for sale which accelerated the disintegration of the structure; the final blow came at the end of the 18th century: lightning struck the bell tower, which fell and crushed what remained of the roof and arches. 
 a detail from the chapter house: imagine the former glory of the abbey itself

Today there is something strangely attractive and even appropriate about this open-air abbey, at least on a clear, sunny, windy day with clouds moving rapidly across the sky above.

one of the aisles

rose window
from nave looking north
nave towards chancel and rose window
heavens above

Impressive for its size, for its reminder of past glory, for its current decay, the abbey stands in stark contrast to the tiny, intact, hive-like chapel on the hill above, at a site where once, long ago, a man came to repent and live alone.
a scattering of aconites under the abbey's north wall

The hilltop town of Chiusdino now houses various relics of the saint and his birthplace can be visited. 
house which has become a chapel dedicated to the local saint

What strikes one most about the old town is its austerity, its grey stone and brick buildings, steep, narrow passageways, steps going up and down at right-angles to one another, like an Escher drawing come to life.

cypresses in the wind at San Galgano

The abbey and hermitage are open daily from 9 to 19 from April to October and from 930 to 1730 from November to March.  
Bar with simple good fare nearby. The entrance fee is modest  and there is plenty of parking space.
A 500 metre walk takes the visitor from the abbey to the chapel or viceversa.

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