One of the most famous English legends 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, and has even been suggested by some as the inspiration for the English legend. This is the sword in the stone of San Galgano.
San Galgano is reported to be the first saint whose canonisation was conducted through a formal process by the Church. Consequently, much of the San Galgano’s life is known through the documents of this canonisation 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.
San Galgano sticking the sword in the stone. Sculpture in the National Pinacotheque, Siena. (Wikimedia Commons)
San Galgano 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 San 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.
San Galgano’s conversion began with a vision of the Archangel Michael, who, incidentally, is commonly depicted as a warrior saint. In one version of the legend, the Archangel Michael appeared before San Galgano, and showed him the way to salvation. The archangel even told the saint the place that he should go. The next morning, San Galgano declared that he was going to become a hermit, and would reside in a nearby cave. As one may expect, San Galgano was ridiculed by his friends and family, and probably thought to have lost his mind. The saint’s mother, Dionisia, manages to convince her son to visit his fiancée for the last time before renouncing all worldly pleasures. Donning his nobleman’s clothes, San Galgano sets out to visit his fiancée. On his way there, the saint’s horse suddenly reared, and he was thrown off its back.
Archangel Michael looking over San Galgano as he rests in the cave. Diocesan Museum. (Wikimedia Commons)
Then, an invisible force lifted San Galgano onto his feet, and a seraphic voice led him to Montesiepi, a hill close to Chiusdino. When San Galgano reached the foot of the hill, he was told to stand still and look to the top of Montesiepi. San Galgano is said to have seen a vision of a round temple 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, saying that this is as easy as splitting stones with a sword. To prove his point, San Galgano drew his sword, and thrust it into a stone. To the saint’s great amazement, the weapon went through the stone like a hot knife through butter, and has been stuck in the stone ever since. San Galgano understood the message loud and clear, and lived on Montesiepi as a hermit. Several years after San Galgano’s death, a round chapel was built on the top of Montesiepi, with the sword in the stone as its main attraction.
For centuries, the sword in the stone was commonly believed to be a modern fake. A relatively recent research, however, has shown that the sword is indeed from the 12th century, based on the composition of the metal and the style of the sword. The researchers also discovered, with the aid of ground-penetrating radar, that there is a cavity measuring 2m by 1m beneath the sword, perhaps containing the body of San Galgano. Lastly, carbon-dating of another curiosity of the chapel – a pair of mummified hands, confirmed that they are also from the 12th century. According to one legend, the Devil supposedly sent an assassin, in the guise of a monk, to Montesiepi. The wild wolves of the hill, who were befriended by San Galgano, protected the saint, and attacked the would-be assailant. After the assassin was killed, his hands were mummified and were subsequently displayed in the chapel.