Visit Abbey of San Galgano
The Abbey of San Galgano near Siena is generally considered to be one of the most important religious monuments in Tuscany and certainly among the greatest of the gothic style monasteries in Italy. This is despite the essentially ruined state of the abbey - it has no roof and many internal walls and original buildings from the abbey complex can nolonger be seen.
The abbey and the associated Chapel of Monte Siepi are in a very quiet and picturesque area of countryside, that adds significantly to its appeal and also helps us appreciate why the location was chosen for the purposes of reflection.
Brief history of San Galgano Abbey
By the 12th century the Cistercian monks and their ruling abbots occupied a central role in the politics and life in this part of Italy. As a consequence, the abbey was built - a process that took much of the 13th century (from 1218 until 1288) to be completed.
At the end of the 13th century the monastery was very extensive with a large number of residents, but this position of power was not to last long. By the end of the 14th century the abbey had been sacked and the mons and other inhabitants almost all driven away.
The abbey fared slightly better in the 15th century but this was not to last and the number of monks soon dwindled. The abbey quickly fell into ruin, and as was common with abandoned monuments of this size the locals started using the stone to build and repair their own properties. By the middle of the 16th century the lead from the abbey roof had been taken away to be used elsewhere.
Nowadays it is mostly the walls that define the nave of the original abbey church of San Galgano that can be seen along with the rose window, several columns and capital stones, parts of the cloisters and the Chapter Hall.
The Chapel of Monte Siepi
As part of your visit to San Galgano Abbey, on the hill close to the abbey you can also see the Chapel of Monte Siepi. This chapel predates the abbey complex, which replaced it when it could not sustain the number of pilgrims it was receiving after the death of Galnago. The Chapel also has a nice view across to the abbey.
This chapel dates from end of the 12th century, and includes the particular feature that you can see the 'Sword in the Stone'. The sword was stuck into the stone by Saint Galgano Guidotti (for who the chapel was built who also gave his name to the abbey) when he turned his back on being a knight and decided to become a hermit instead after having a vision of the Archangel Michael who told him to renounce violence.
Scholars disagree about whether this 'sword in the stone' was made as a fake after the story of King Arthur became well known in Europe, or whether it existed before that time and was the inspiration for the story. Nowadays any connection between a place and the story of the Holy Grail attracts attention and there are many stories claiming Galgano was perhaps the original King Arthur, or the related German character Parsifal, and the Holy Grail is hidden here somewhere...
You might be disappointed to find that both the stone and sword are now protected by glass so you can't try pulling it out!
This little group of buildings that includes the chapel and also a later chapel and a rectory. Apart from the sword in the stone, which can still be seen here, the other highlight is the striped roof of the rotunda, with the 24 concentric rings made of alternating white rock and small red bricks - quite a feat in the 12th century! There are also some medieval frescoes to be seen on the walls.
The Abbey of San Golnago is in the scenic Crete Senesi region to the south-east of Siena. See the Crete Senesi guide for other interesting places to visit in this particularly beautiful part of central Tuscany.
You can find more local travel ideas in the Tuscany guide.