At the entry to the Sacra, you stand in front of the Sepolcro dei Monaci of the Sacra di San Michele. This is an ancient temple, believed to be a cemetery chapel, which was more likely the reproduction of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, almost a foretaste of the Jerusalem church for pilgrims. The construction, purely Christian, dates back to the 10th century. This church, still intact in 1621 and dedicated to Saint Stephen, began to collapse in 1661, until it very quickly became a ruin.
Seguono le foresterie, in due appositi edifici. La Foresteria Grande fu costruita verso la fine del sec. XI, quando la fama dell’ospitalità dei monaci era già tale da richiedere un vero e proprio ospizio staccato dal monastero. Durante il periodo medievale la Foresteria Grande era quindi la zona dell’hospitale destinata ai pellegrini e agli ospiti. La Foresteria attuale è in gran parte una ricostruzione avvenuta tra la fine dell’ottocento e l’inizio del novecento, durante la quale venne posta una merlatura a coronamento dell’edificio. L’errore fu però notevole in quanto stilisticamente tale merlatura è ghibellina (a coda di rondine), mentre l’abbazia essendo legata al papato avrebbe dovuto avere una merlatura guelfa (a parallelepipedo semplice). La Foresteria Piccola è sorta probabilmente come luogo di servizio, la cui destinazione d’uso è di difficile individuazione.
The mass of the abbey façade (41 metres high) is broken up by the colour-shape combination of the straight lines of the iron grey base with the full curves of the greenish church, crowned by the central apse and by that triumph of an arcade with little arches (the “Loggia dei Viretti” or “Loggia of the Viretti”), which is one of the best examples of a Romanesque apsidal loggia. The Benedictine monks undertook the colossal construction work of the base in the first half of the 12th century, to erect the large five-apse church on top. From the entry level, you reach the Scalone dei Morti, the construction of which seems to date back to the mid-12th century. Having scaled the first steps, on the left you pass a column more than 18 metres high that supports the floor of the church above.
To the right, an outcrop of rock that is lost in the opposite wall emerges. Until 1936, in the central niche, some monks’ skeletons were preserved - hence the name of this stairway. Long ago, this “atrium” was frequently used to bury famous men, abbots, and commendable people of the monastery. Having reached the top of the Scalone dei Morti, you cross the Portale dello Zodiaco (“Zodiac Portal” - 1128-30), a Romanesque work sculpted by Master Nicolao, a famous architect-sculptor from Piacenza. The portal is called thus because the door posts in the façade facing the stairway are sculpted on the right with the twelve signs of the zodiac and, on the left, with the australis and borealis constellations. The historic and symbolic capitals, and the bases of the columns, are also of significant value. Having passed through the Portale dello Zodiaco, you face the last flight of stairs to the church: it is a solemn stairway in green stone, beneath the play of four imposing buttresses and flying buttresses designed by the architect Alfredo D’Andrade and completed in 1937. At the end of the 1800s, this area was completely occupied by constructions and, thus, the Portale dello Zodiaco did not give access to an open terrace but to covered areas through which you reached the church. D’Andrade intervened by demolishing these rooms and designing the stairway and flying buttresses to address the static instability of the church's south wall. The artistic entrance portal of the Sacra di San Michele - of Romanesque origin in grey and green stone that leads into the church - can be seen from a spacious piece of level ground. It was constructed by Hugon di Montboissier’s architects in the early 1000s. Very elegant and rounded with a wide embrasure, it still communicates a strong sense of welcome, safety, and calm. The arris and cordon arches are supported by half columns with floral capitals. Above, there is a dripstone that, on the right, ends with the head of a hooded monk, and, to the left, ended with that of a boy (now missing). The columns with clearly Gothic trilobe arches, which were added later, are the remains of the arcade that protected the portal. The knockers on the walnut door, created in 1826, show the weapons of St. Michael the Archangel and the devil in the form of a serpent with a human face. At the top left of the portal, a Roman tombstone for Surio Clemente, which dates back to the 1st century AD, is embedded. This testifies to the presence of a Roman fortification on this mountain.
The Romanesque-Gothic sanctuary that today welcomes visitors at the top of Mount Pirchiriano was constructed and modified over the course of several centuries. Three kinds of architecture appear there: Romanesque in the apse, oriented towards the exact point where the sun rises on the day of the feast of St. Michael (29 September), in the first archway and corresponding windows and columns; transitional Romanesque in the two successive archways with compound columns and pointed arches; and Gothic, of the Piacenza school, in the decoration of the large window in the central apse and in the two windows of the lesser naves. The start of construction works for the church is difficult to date, but people think that the start was commissioned by the abbot Stefano (1148 and 1170). Originally, the church was to be surmounted by rib vaults similar to the current ones. Sometimes these collapsed and, in the 17th century, they were replaced in the central nave by a heavy barrel vault, which exerted significant thrust on the side walls, threatening its stability and creating the danger of its possible overturning. To deal with this threat, during the restoration works at the end of the 1800s, the barrel vault was demolished and replaced with a triple rib vault completed in 1937. Inside the church, there are imposing columns, numerous little columns, engaged columns, and arrises. The whole is crowned by evocative and symbolic capitals: there are 139 of them. Of particular interest is the first column on the left of the central nave, under which the peak of Mount Pirchiriano emerges for 15 centimetres: the “culmine vertiginosamente santo” (“dizzily holy peak”), as the Rosminian poet Clemente Rebora defined it. The three apses are distinguished by the red of the bricks covering them. In the central one, two spacious niches with a real Romanesque window open out at the sides and, above these, there is a Greek cross deeply carved into the wall. The Primitive Sanctuary of Saint Michael comprises three apsidal chapels that can be accessed from the central nave, near the right-hand column, by descending 12 very ancient stairs that are fairly consumed. The stairs make you think of the thousands of pilgrims who have trod them since the distant medieval period. Scholars agree in identifying this as the first temple and the historical origin of its cult devoted to Michael. The biggest chapel, its back wall made of living rock, is an extension of the other two, and is now dedicated to San Giovanni Vincenzo. We are in the most sacred place of the Abbey.
La parte nord-ovest del monte, per una lunghezza di circa 50 metri, è occupata da imponenti ammassi di pietre, pilastri, muraglioni, archi e barbacani: sono le cosiddette Rovine del Monastero Nuovo, edificato tra il XII e il XIV secolo in corrispondenza del momento di massima espansione della comunità monastica. Il grandioso edificio a 5 piani, a cui fu aggiunta, verso nord, una nuova costruzione terminante con la Torre della Bell’Alda, una torre a strapiombo sul precipizio del monte al termine del muraglione perimetrale delle Rovine, cadde in rovina a causa di sismi, guerre e abbandono. Questa zona delle “Rovine” è stata oggetto di interventi di restauro, conservazione e accessibilità negli anni 1999-2002. Tra le rovine del Monastero Nuovo è visibile una “Casetta” costruita alla fine del 1800, utilizzata dal Genio Militare come stazione per il telegrafo ottico. Questo sistema, sfruttando l’alfabeto morse con l’emissione di lampi di luce, permetteva la trasmissione dei messaggi e la comunicazione tra Torino e i forti militari della Triplice Alleanza.