St. Galgano was a knight from the twelfth century whose youth was characterized by wickedness and debauchery. That all changed having he had two visions of St. Michael the Archangel. While the details of his life and conversion are vague, what is certain is that he is forever linked to the legend of a sword lodged in a rock that is immovable to human hands.
According to the hagiographical legends, Galgano was born in 1148 not far from Siena. His noble parents, Guido Guidotti and Dionigia, were unable to have children for many years. After seeking the intercession of St. Michael the Archangel, Galgano was conceived and born.
Following the customs of the era, he was destined to become a knight. As part of the feudalism of the High Middle Ages, there was a culture of violence and proving one’s strength and vitality. Frequent clashes between the local lords of Siena were commonplace.
Though Galgano’s parents were religious and devoted, his youth was marked by violence and arrogance, entertainments and pleasure.
His Conversion and the Angel
After an encounter with St. Michael the Archangel, this all changed.
Twice St. Michael the Archangel appeared to Galgano admonishing him to change his life and become a Knight of God, as part of the celestial militia. In the first vision, his destiny as a knight under the protection of the archangel himself was revealed. In the second, the archangel invited Galgano to follow him.
Galgano followed the archangel across a long bridge over a river and a water mill. After crossing the bridge and a flowery meadow – which gave off an intense and sweet fragrance – they reached Montesiepi (Mt. Siepi). There Galgano had a vision of Jesus, the Apostles and the Virgin Mary. They exhorted him to take on a life of penance as a hermit.
Here the legend of the sword begins. Galgano wished to make a cross on the spot, but was unable to cut wood with his sword. Throwing his sword on the ground in frustration, it entered the rock. No one was able to extract it.
In another version of the legend, after his heavenly visitors told him to renounce material things and convert from all licentiousness, the future saint replied, “It would be easier to cut stone with this sword than to do that.” To prove his point, he thrust his sword into the rock. However, it sank into the rock smoothly, as a knife through warm butter.
Galgano soon transformed his knightly cloak into a religious tunic and wore it as such. He began living as a hermit, eating wild herbs and sleeping on the bare earth.
Once, while Galgano was away on pilgrimage to Rome, three envious monks tried to extract the sword from the stone. Failing to do so, they became enraged and tried to break it. The legends say that one fell into a river and drowned, another was struck by lightning, while the third was attacked by a wolf from which he was saved by invoking Galgano’s name.
Galgano died on December 3, 1181. Four years later he was canonized a saint by Pope Lucius III. Three years later a chapel was built around the sword in Montesiepi. It became known as the “Rotonda della Spada” (Rotund of the Sword) due to its circular shape.
Devotion to St. Galgano spread rapidly in the chivalrous milieu of the High Middle Ages. Together with St. Michael the Archangel – the angelic warrior and victor – knights and soldiers, such as the Lombards and the Franks as well as the crusaders, built churches in honor of them and prayed frequently for their intercession.
King Arthur and Excalibur?
The mysterious sword entered the religious and chivalric imagination of the era lending itself, possibly, to the legend of King Arthur and Excalibur.
An Italian professor, Mario Moiraghi, published his exhaustive research comparing the story of St. Galgano to the legend of Arthur in L’enigma di san Galgano (Ancora, 2012). He suggested that the British Arthurian legend of Excalibur was inspired by St. Galgano’s sword in the stone in Tuscany. He noted that though the myth of King Arthur dates to ancient times, the story of the sword of Excalibur and the stone appeared in Robert de Boron’s 13th-century Merlin after St. Galgano’s death in 1181,
Moiraghi also brought in a team of scientists from the University of Pavia to study the sword and test small samples. They confirmed that the sword dated from the 12th century, and the composition of the metal and its style were compatible with the era of the legend. The studies also confirmed that the upper piece and the invisible lower one are authentic and belong to one and the same artifact.
Today on Montesiepi is the Chapel of St. Galgano, the Rotonda della Spada where St. Galgano lived as a hermit. The sword can be seen inside it. Nearby are the ruins of a Gothic Cistercian abbey. St. Galgano’s cloak is conserved in the Church of the Santuccio in Siena.