Gothic Delights--The Abbey of San Galgano

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Gothic Delights:
The Abbey of San Galgano

The naveThe Abbey of San Galgano has been described as the greatest Gothic building in Italy, and you will understand why as dusk begins to fall: The grass that has replaced the flagstones of the nave darkens, the colors of the setting sun shine through the gaping windows, and the stars appear in the heavenly vault that has replaced the church's ceiling. It's hard to imagine anything more haunting, or dramatic.

The Abbey, built in the 12th and 13th centuries, was one of the Cistercians' two largest Italian foundations. Built to the Glory of God, it was sacked by the English condottiere Sir John Hawkwood and his mercenaries, and by 1397 the abbot was its only inhabitant. During the 15th century, the papacy assigned its income to a dissolute cardinal. The monks left and the building deteriorated. The bell tower is said to have collapsed during a Mass attended by locals.

In the early evening light, there is a timeless stillness and quiet about the place.

Though the church proper is still open to the elements, the cloisters and smaller buildings are being restored by a community of Benedictine Olivetan nuns, who also have a carefully tended vegetable path behind the structure, overlooked by a small statue of the Madonna.

You may be wondering who Saint Galgano Guidotti was.

The son of a petty noble, he was by all accounts a dissolute fop, but after a vision of St. Michael he gave up his life as a knight and became a hermit. During a visit by friends and family, who were trying to convince him to return to normal life, the nave, grassyGalgano thrust his sword into a rock beside his hut, where it remains to this day. He died at the age of 33 in 1181, and was canonized four years later. Between 1182 and 1185, his hermitage became what we now know as the Cappella di Monte Siepi, a round chapel on the hill above the main abbey, with the sword forming a centerpiece. The Cappella offers a beautiful view of the abbey, its neighboring buildings and the beautiful surrounding countryside. Galgano's body was subsequently lost, although his head, which is said to have grown golden curls for many years following his death, is preserved in Siena's Museo dell'Opera del Duomo. In the 14th century, a Gothic side chapel was added to the original Romanesque Cappella, and in the 1700s a rectory was added. The side chapel has the remains of some frescoes by Ambrogio Lorenzetti, including a faint picture of Galgano offering the sword in the stone to Saint Michael. There is also a grisly testament to medieval faith, the arms of a "bad monk" sent by Satan to tempt Saint Galgano: he was set upon by the wolves of God, who chewed on his bones.

Getting there: San Galgano is about half way between Siena and Massa Marittima, on S.S. 73.