"From Sword to Sanctity: The Miraculous Tale of Saint Galgano"

Saint Galgano renounces his violent life after a divine vision, thrusts his sword into stone as a symbol of peace, becomes a hermit, and is later canonized. His legacy is preserved in a chapel.


By Bjorn Hellqvist, revise by Rico Sanchez

2/8/20243 min read

"From Sword to Sanctity: The Miraculous Tale of Saint Galgano"
"From Sword to Sanctity: The Miraculous Tale of Saint Galgano"

The Tale of Saint Galgano

Galgano Guidotti was born in 1148, the offspring of a minor nobleman. He was a rebellious, troublesome young knight, constantly in search of conflict and earthly delights. Unexpectedly, Archangel Michael appeared to him one day, showing him the path to salvation and providing directions to follow. The very next day, Sir Galgano declared his intention to become a hermit and began living in a cave. His decision was met with mockery from his friends and relatives. His mother, Dionisia, implored him to wear his luxurious nobleman's attire one last time to visit his fiancée. On his journey, his horse reared, unseating Galgano. As he spat out the dust from the road, he felt an unseen force lift him to his feet, and a celestial voice, irresistible in its command, guided him to Monte Siepi, a rugged hill near his hometown of Chiusdino.

This voice instructed him to pause and observe the hilltop, where Galgano envisioned a round temple with Jesus, Mary, and the Apostles. As he ascended the hill, the vision dissipated. Reaching the summit, the voice urged him to abandon his dissolute lifestyle. Galgano retorted that it was easier said than done, likening the challenge to splitting a rock with a sword. To demonstrate, he drew his blade and thrust it at the ground. To his astonishment, the sword sliced through the rock as if it were butter, burying itself to the hilt. Taking this as a divine sign, Galgano settled on the hill as a hermit, embracing a life of poverty. He occasionally received visits from peasants seeking blessings, befriended wild animals, and even thwarted an assassination attempt by the Devil, with the local wolves protecting him by attacking the assailant and, as legend has it, devouring his bones.

Galgano Guidotti passed away in 1181 at the age of 33 and was canonized four years later. His funeral was a significant occasion, attended by bishops and three Cistercian abbots, including one who had been lost en route to Rome. The following year, the Bishop of Volterra entrusted Monte Siepi to the Cistercians, who built a shrine in Galgano's memory. Construction of the round chapel, known as the Cappella di Monte Siepi, commenced in 1185 above the main abbey, featuring the sword as its focal point.

The chapel offers stunning views of the Abbey, adjacent structures, and the picturesque surrounding landscape. Although Galgano's body was lost posthumously, his head, reputed to have sprouted golden curls for years after his death, was placed in a side chapel, along with the gnawed bones of the would-be assassin's arms in another. Saint Galgano's head is preserved as a relic in the Museo dell'Opera del Duomo in Siena, and the skeletal remains are still on display. The influx of pilgrims was so vast that the Cistercians were permitted to construct another monastery nearby, which became one of Italy's most beautiful Gothic structures and among the Cistercians' largest foundations in the country. This monastery quickly gained power and respect, with monks from San Galgano assuming prominent roles throughout Tuscany. In the 14th century, a Gothic side chapel was added to the original Romanesque structure, and in the 18th century, a rectory was built. The side chapel contains remnants of frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, including a faint depiction of Galgano offering the sword in the stone to Saint Michael. The Abbey fell into disrepair over the centuries, eventually becoming the majestic ruins seen today.

For centuries, the authenticity of the sword was doubted by all but the most faithful. The weapon, a simple 12th-century style sword seamlessly embedded in bedrock, underwent scientific analysis in 2001 by Luigi Garlaschelli of the University of Pavia, confirming its ancient origin and debunking theories of it being a modern forgery. Ground-penetrating radar analysis uncovered a cavity beneath the sword, possibly a burial site for the saint's remains. Carbon dating of two mummified arms in the chapel confirmed their 12th-century origin, bolstering the legend that anyone attempting to remove the sword would suffer dire consequences.

The legend of Saint Galgano is believed to have inspired the medieval tales of King Arthur and the Sword in the Stone, demonstrating the story's wide-reaching influence across Europe. Notably, the narrative of Arthur extracting a sword from a stone (or an anvil atop it) emerged shortly after Saint Galgano's canonization in a poem by the Burgundian poet Robert de Boron, suggesting that the Arthurian legend may have drawn inspiration from the life of this reformed Italian knight.