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Abbey of Sant’Antimo – Authentic French Romanesque

Abbey of Sant’Antimo – Authentic French Romanesque


The Benedictine Abbey of Sant’Antimo is an authentic French Romanesque church found in the lower Val d’Orcia. In a natural amphitheater, it’s immersed in the tranquility and beauty of olive groves, vineyards, open fields and forested hillsides. Charlemagne, King of the Lombards, camped here in the 8th century beginning a fascinating rags to riches to rags history.

Wonderful historical artefacts are to be found in this rare French-styled Romanesque church, including many medieval stone carvings and a 14th-century fresco cycle. 

Whether you’re a history buff or simply looking for a peaceful place to explore and relax in, the Abbey of Sant’Antimo is definitely worth a leisurely visit.

Getting to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo

Take the SP55 down to Abbazia di Sant’Antimo from Montalcino, an easy fifteen minute – 10 kilometer scenic drive. Resist the temptation to stop at several wineries along the way!

When to Visit

The Abbey is open April through to the end of September from 10am to 6:30pm – closing at 6pm during October.

From November through to the end of March the Abbey is open from 10:30am until 5pm.

Holy Mass is conducted everyday except on Monday, starting at 11am and concluding 12pm.

We visited just as mass was finishing on a Sunday, and the remnant smoke added such atmosphere to our experience. However, we couldn’t get access to the sacristy as it was in use by the priest.

Note:- the Gregorian chants no longer occur here. The Monks responsible for the events moved-on several years ago.

Approaching the Church

You’re greeted by an agricultural countryside on arrival, with its rhythmic rows of vines and orderly olive groves. Walk past the ancient olive trees and turn toward the massive cypress tree, planted perhaps a little too close to the campanile.

It’s easy to imagine a community of monks here, devoting themselves to a life of simplicity and devotion. 

Semi-circular shapes in the roof lines of the apse and its three chapels creates a nice mirroring effect. This is an authentic feature of French Romanesque that’s rarely found outside of France.

While there’s a variety of carvings on the corbels here, the two most symbolic carvings are on the campanile. Firstly, there is what appears to be a sphinx, probably a Roman deity salvaged from an ancient roman villa nearby. A lion’s tail, a bulls body, eagles wings, and an angel’s head? A composite of the four evangelists in the one body, Saints Mark, Luke, John, and Matthew? Probably not.

On the next level above is where you’ll find the other. The compact carved stone features the four Evangelists, with Archangel Michael, and Mary with the child Christ.

Medieval stone carving

– The Facade

Walking on, past the north portal and rounding the corner, it’s clear that the building is incomplete. What happened to the western side of the main entry, there must have been a loggia here at some point?

To the left of the portal a column at is capped by a carving of a lion with one head and two bodies. It’s thought to represent the one Christ who was both human and divine. There is a matching column and pillar on the other side of the entry portal. Together, they would have been placed to support the blind arches that you can see.

This entry portal has a twin, found on Chiesa di Santa Maria in San Quirico d’Orcia. Also in San Quirico are carved arches and corbels that match those we’ve already seen at the other end. It’s thought that the two portals were planned to be placed together, as entry and exit points for visiting pilgrims. Sadly, a change in fortune and dwindling finances during rebuilding seems to have lead to what we see.

Supporting the architrave at both sides are protective lions and on the architrave is a carving of the tree of life, representing spiritual renewal . The twin at Santa Maria has a lion and a monster, devouring a sinner each.

More stone carvings are just around the corner, the most obvious being on the southern portal. On the architrave above the door are eagles paired with griffons who are defending against dragons. These represent the protection of Christ’s constant battle against evil. The coat of arms above are for Bishop Alessandro Serardi.

Inside the Church

Mismatched column bearing stilfore lions are just inside the entry portal though not bearing columns. They are often found outside the entry of medieval churches throughout Italy. Stilfore lions are thought to originate from the Israel tribe of Judah. They invite Christians to enter a protected, sacred place of prayer – leaving behind the evils of the world.

The north portal is to your left, which may have been an entry for those yet to be baptised. In stricter times only the baptised could enter through the main portal.

Madonna di Sant’Antimo with the Christ child is a wooden statue carved in the 13th century. She is in a protective case alongside the votive candle holder to your right, near the door. Further down the church above the altar, the crucifix is another wood carving that is thought to be carved in the 13th century. Here Christ has open eyes, appearing to not be suffering, a medieval representation of having defeated death.

In front of the altar, on the steps, there is a lengthy inscription carved in Latin. It is a copy of the deed declaring the generous donation from Count Bernardo degli Ardengheschi. This donation funded the bold rebuilding of a Medieval church in the Tuscan countryside.

Madonna di Sant’Antimo

Inside this classically French Romanesque church is the matroneo (womens gallery) on the first level, revealed by the large viewing windows. The rounded apse beyond the altar with its French arched ambulatory allowed pilgrims to silently pass by without disturbing mass.

A spiral stair built into the wall, behind a door next to the south portal goes up to the Bishop’s apartment. A timber staircase in the sacristy also takes you there. Inside the apartment there are decorative frescoes that you pass to reach a corridor, hidden from view of those below. As you cross into the north gallery there are stone fragments, archaeological finds of the ancient church. The mullioned windows offer several different views down into the church.

Carved capitals

Near the entry of the church is where you will find the most interesting stone carving. Atop the second column to the right, the capital displays the story of Daniel in the lion’s den. The faithful Daniel raises his hands and is safe with his companions. His accusers are being attacked on the reverse side. The upper section of the capital is alabaster, as if part of the same carving. In it are dragons and lions and monsters, symbolising the evil defeated by Christ.

Daniel in the lion’s den

Two dogs, one held on a lead by its owner are opposite on the second capital on the left side. The one with a lead represents the faithful dog, and the free dog represents the scavenging evil spirit.

Down where the chancel area begins, there are half capitals on the main structural pillars. To the left is a Centaur hunting wild beasts. The Centaur being half human reacts to instinct and passion, but being half animal is unaware of committing sin. 

Opposite, on the other side of the chancel, one capital has two ram heads. The old testament sees the ram as being one of the most valuable animals to offer as sacrifice. However, the ram can also symbolize Christ as the head of the flock. 

On the right, there are eagles with open wings, symbolising Christ offering refuge under its wings. The next capital along has griffins, half eagle and half lion representing Christs’s two natures, the human and the divine.


Two frescoes attributed to Spinello Aretino in the very early 15th century are down here at the front of the church. On the left is Saint Sebastian, protector against epidemics, particularly plagues. On the right is the Roman Nobile Saint Gregory. He sold all of his possessions to embrace the strict benedictine rule, and eventually was elected Pope.

If you are able to gain access to the sacristy, there are older 14th century frescoes of stories from Saint Benedict’s life. This section remains from the previous building, replaced during the 12th century at the height of the monastery’s wealth.

Another fresco, thought to be from the 16th century, is in the crypt below the altar. Christ is being lifted from the tomb by two angels. Below the fresco is a small altar, the sepulchre of the relics of Saint Anthimus and Saint Sebastian. It is thought to have been made from remains of a Roman catacomb.

A typically large St. Christopher fresco is on the north pillar closest to the church entry. With the child Christ on his shoulder, he is known as the protector of travelers and is popular with pilgrims. The saint is often also seen as the protector against pestilence. Along with St. Sebastian, both saints were seen as important during the spread of plague.


As you exit the church and turn left toward where you would expect the cloister to be, you find that there isn’t one. Long ago, the cloister began falling apart and the material was repurposed in the nearby Castelnuovo dell’Abate. 

The area is now represented by a hedged grass area, but the original well is still there.

Monastic pharmacy

There is a wall with two arches supported by small columns, creating three windows as you approah the farmacia. This was originally the assembly area where the monks would congregate daily to listen to readings of the Rule of Saint Benedict.

Cloister window

Products are available to buy inside the pharmacy. They made from old monastic traditions and recipes for a range of products like honey, jam, candy, and herbal tea. 

Made with the essence of historic Carlina herb, amaro di Sant’Antimo is available along with the abbey’s own beer in light, amber, and dark styles. They also have a range of liqueurs and herb infused grappa.

Products made with herbs and natural essences are sold along with fruits, black pepper, lavender, and of course olive oil.

History of the abbey of Sant’Antimo

According to legend, Charlemagne, then known as King of Lombards, set up camp here while returning from a pilgrimage to Rome in 781. His army and traveling court had been stricken by illness. 

An angel came while the devout King was praying, and told him to shoot an arrow into the air. He should then burn the grass wherever it landed, grind it into powder, and combine it with wine for the sick to drink. 

The disease was defeated thanks to a miraculous herb (later known as Carlina). He ordered that a chapel be built in honour of Saint Anthimus, whose remains were gifted to him along with a reliquary of Saint Sebastian while he was in Rome. He left the remains here in thanks for the grace received from God.

A diploma was issued in 814 by Charlemagne’s youngest legitimate son and successor, the Emperor Louis the Pious. It granted privileges and vast land holdings to the abbot of Sant’Antimo. Importantly, it stated that nobody should dare to bother the monastery or alter the boundaries of the land donated by the Emperor.

Further diplomas were issued by Henry III in 1051 and Henry IV in 1105 granting the Sant’Antimo even more privileges. Also granted were 96 castles, vast areas of land and farms and mills, and 85 other monasteries, churches and hospices.

The abbey was exempt from paying taxes to the pope and emperor, and protected from the violence of feudal lords. The authority of Sant’Antimo covered a scattered area throughout the countryside of Siena, Florence, Pisa, and Grosseto.

Sant’Antimo received the substantial fortune of Count Bernardo degli Ardengheschi in 1118. This is what initiated the building project worthy of an Imperial Abbey.

– The Decline of Sant’Antimo

With Siena’s growth in power and desire for more territory, in 1200 it attacked Montalcino inflicting severe damage, destroying its defensive walls. This set-off a decade of furious dispute between the abbey with its various imperial decrees, and Siena’s military superiority.

Despite the Pope re-declaring all previous exemptions and privileges to the Abbey of Sant’Antimo in 1216, the balance of power among the alliances had shifted. Siena’s new supremacy over Montalcino along with the almost constant wars between city states marked the slow, unstoppable decline of the abbey.

The assets of the Abbey of Sant’Antimo were largely decimated at the end of the 13th century, after the monastery was already in a state of decline. Pope Nicholas IV entrusted the abbey to the strict Hermits of Saint William, a reformed Benedictine order, to heal this degraded situation.

Castelnuovo dell’Abate on the hill top

– Abandonment of Sant’Antimo

In 1320 there was serious earthquake damage. By 1462 the Abbey of Sant’Antimo had lost its ancient splendor and fallen into decay. Pope Pius II suppressed the abbey by incorporating it into the new Diocese of Montalcino and Pienza. 

Many buildings in the cloister had collapsed due to a state of neglect, and stones were reused in the construction of the nearby village of Castelnuovo dell’Abate.

By 1870 the abandonment and neglect had reached such a state where the church was being used as a farm shed. The Carolingian Crypt had become a cellar, and other buildings as stables and animal pens.

It was this abject misfortune that prevented the monastery from being subject to various ideas and trends over the centuries. Misfortune preserving it as one of the most notable Romanesque architecture examples.

Only by 1895 was the French Romanesque church brought back to its present appearance through a long campaign of restorations. These campaigns continued infrequently throughout the 20th century.

Several religious orders have occupied the abbey, which until recently included a Gregorian order. They have since moved on, sadly taking their wonderful chanting experience with them.