Sacra di San Michele: Thousand-Year-Old Mountain Abbey

Located in Turin’s Piedmont region, Italy, on Mount Pirchiriano, the Sacra di San Michele is one of the oldest abbeys in Italy and Europe. The abbey is at least a millennium old with the location itself even dating further back.

Sacra di San Michele

Historians believe that before the abbey, there was a military fort in its place built by the Romans. The fort served as a lookout tower, observing the road between Gaul and Italy. After the fall of Rome, the Lombards who settled in the region also built another fortress to defend themselves against the Franks.

Sacra di San Michele walls close up

While very little information is certain about the abbey’s early years, what we know comes from the journals of a monk who lived there. According to the monk, the construction of the Sacra di San Michele started around the late 900s and ended in the early 1000s. Moreover, the crypt under the abbey also shows traces of early Byzantine architecture, another proof of the abbey’s age.

Sacra di San Michele wall exterior

The abbey has elements of both Gothic and Romanesque architecture. The height and size of the structure, its towers, windows, and the interior stonework make the Sacra di San Michele quite an impressive sight. Moreover, there are skeletons and tombs of the dead monks covering the sides of the staircase in the complex called the Stairway of the Dead.

Sacra di San Michele and the fog
Domenico Ianaro

The builders of Sacra di San Michele belong to the cult of St. Michael. It was a tradition among the cultists to build their religious structures to high places where very few could reach.

Sacra di San Michele during winter

Shortly after its construction, the abbey developed even more under the control of the Benedictines. They added more towers and rooms, raised the height of the structure, and provided shelter for monks until 1622. In the early 17th century, the Benedictines left the abbey which remained abandoned for more than 200 years.

a statue inside the complex

At the behest of the Pope, the Sacra di San Michele went under extensive renovations in the early 19th century. As a result, monks populated the abbey once again. Since then, the Rosminians have controlled the abbey and it has become one of the most popular religious complexes in Europe.

the church interior

The Sacra di San Michele is truly one of the most impressive examples of Medieval architecture. Moreover, it has become a cultural icon as well. The imposing stature of the abbey became the inspiration for one of the best books of all time: Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose.

the church staircase
Sergio Biondi