To be a Knight of Malta – Identity, Then and Now.
Guided Tour of St. John’s Co-Cathedral.
On Saturday morning, 18th March 2017, FAA members assembled at St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta for a guided tour led by Dr. Dane Munro, an independent scholar, lecturer, cultural interpreter and tour guide. His academic work and publications have been on sepulchral art at St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, and in his book ’Memento Mori’, he translated into English the Latin text inscriptions of 383 marble tombstones and 24 sepulchral monuments of the Knights of St. John. Dane also serves as the executive Chairman of Sacra Militia foundation, an academic organisation which researches the historical aspects of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM).
Inside the church Dr. Munro first gave an outline of the church’s history. The foundations of the church, designed by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, were laid in 1571, with construction between 1573 and 1578. The church, with side chapels on either side, was built in a sober, military-style, with a touch of Mannerism at the main entrance.
After 1620 the side chapels were assigned to the different Langues according to seniority, as the French, Italian and Aragonese Langues were dominant, they were placed closest to the altar. In 1630 with the arrival of Baroque in Malta, matters of art became more important and the Langues competed against each other in religious expression. The Grand Masters, who all took great pride in their conventual church, wanted it to be decorated according to the new baroque style, so during the 1650s and throughout the 1660s a vast programme of embellishment was set into motion with the arrival of the Baroque Master Painter Mattia Preti, charged with the transformation of the interior.
Assembling in front of the tombstones Dr. Munro drew the group’s attention to the total concept of Baroque art from the colourful painted ceiling, down the decorative sculptured buttresses to the marble inlaid floor. Losses of gilding were noticeable on the base of the pillars (now painted) as a result of rising damp. The vaulted ceiling painted by Mattia Preti showed biblical scenes, and included Angels of Fame, who are the messengers of the gods, blowing their trumpets. Angels are a popular symbol commonly used to signify the transition of the soul from earth to heaven by heralding the entry of the deceased into the after-life. The Knights needed to prepare for their death, hence the relationship between heaven, symbolized by the ceiling and the floor tombstones. Knights believed in Purgatory and that prayers from the living would shorten their stay there.
The grand floor of St. John’s Co-Cathedral is lavishly paved with some finely crafted 383 marble inlaid tombstones with rich designs, colours, textures and inscriptions in Latin of high ranking Knights of the Order of St John, who lived and died in Malta in the 16th to 18th centuries during the Order’s reign over the island.
Dr. Munro then talked about the iconography of the figures, symbols and inscriptions seen on the tombstones, the quantity and quality of which is unique. The elaborate colourful designs and inscriptions were commissioned by the deceased themselves well before they died, to ensure that their place in the church, as well as in the after-life, would be secure and also fitting to their rank in the social hierarchy. Thus the inscriptions highlight the Knight’s identity, their life and achievements including such elements as his rank and titles, his offices, other achievements and last but not least his heroical deeds. Dying in battle would be the highest honour. Although the tombstones have a connection to mourning, they are at the same time a celebration of life and a grand display of victory over death.
Other symbols on the tombstones are skeletons, symbols of death, often with a sickle and an hourglass signifying the passage of time, which appear frequently in the iconography of St John’s tombstones. Crowns and coronets indicate the most noble of the knights and proclaim power, victory and honour. Angels, who come to take one’s soul to heaven, are often represented hovering in the upper part of the tombstone, holding the escutcheon in mid-air. The escutcheon, represents here the soul of the deceased, while the coat of arms refers to his glorious ancestors. Father Time, usually with a white beard and dressed in a robe, means the personification of time, appearing typically as an old man with a scythe and hourglass.
Dr. Munro next showed the group some of the interesting decorated Chapels on either side of the nave, initially observing the initials of Grand Masters Rafael (RC) and Nicholas Cotoner (NC) cladding on the interior walls on the left hand side of the church. These were the two brothers, both grand-masters, who were in charge of overseeing the construction of the cathedral in the 17th century. The first chapel viewed was the Chapel of the Langue of Germany, dedicated to the Epiphany of Christ. The decoration commenced in 1664 and the walls of this chapel are carved with intricate designs including the double-headed eagle which was adopted by the German Langue as its emblem and appears throughout the chapel. Its altarpiece depicts ‘The Adoration of the Magi’ by the Maltese painter Stefano Erardi.
The second chapel seen was of the Langue of Italy, which was dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and St Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of the Italian Knights. The chapel is true to the Baroque concept of one aesthetic expression where architecture, sculpture and painting are conceived as a whole. Its altarpiece depicts ‘The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine’, and it is the work of Mattia Preti. The statues of St. Catherine and St. Alexandria stand on large scrolled corbels to either side of the altar. A lunette painting depicts the beheading of St. Catherine, with angels hovering over her head to take her soul to heaven, and also St. John holding a flag.
The next stop was in front of the sanctuary and High Altar, the focal point of the church. The ornate High Altar in the centre of the sanctuary is a masterpiece in rare marble and was the gift of Grand Master Carafa. From here, looking towards the back of the church, Dr. Munro drew our attention to the lunette over the main door. The Lunette wall painting ‘The Allegory of Triumph of the Order of St John’ by the Calabrian artist Mattia Preti who was commissioned in 1661 to execute the life of St John in decorative paintings. In this painting, Nicolas Cotoner is seen in the bottom left-hand corner caring for the sick and needy, whereas Raphael Cotoner is seen in the bottom right-hand corner as a military figure who builds galleys and fortifications. On top in the middle of the lunette is a figure of the ‘Lady of Victories’ holding a sword, and standing on the enemies, i.e. Turks and N. African muslim slaves.
The third chapel seen was of the Langue of Aragon, including the priories of Catalunia and Navarre, and is dedicated to St George. It is one of the most richly embellished chapels in the church. The dome and walls of the chapel were carved and gilded between 1659 and 1666, and the altar painting, were all commissioned by Grand Master Martin de Redin in 1659. The altar painting represents St. George on Horseback, and is considered to be one of Mattia Preti‘s masterpieces. There is also a funerary monument of Nicolas Cotoner. There are four Grand Masters buried in this chapel, Grand Master de Redin (reigned 1657 to 1660); Grand Master Raphael Cotoner (reigned 1660 to 1663); Grand Master Nicholas and Grand Master Perellos Y Roccaful (reigned 1697-1720).
The last visit in the church was to the Oratory to see two prominent paintings by the renowned artist Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio (1571–1610). In 1608, Caravaggio painted masterpieces ‘The Beheading of St. John the Baptist’ (Fig.2), which is the most famous work in the church, and ‘St. Jerome Writing’ (Fig.3). The former painting, measuring 360 x 520 cms, is one of Caravaggio’s most impressive uses of the chiaroscuro style for which he is most famous with a circle of light illuminating the scene of St John’s beheading. It is the only painting signed by Caravaggio, with an ‘F’ in the blood coming out of the head of St John. He signed ‘F’ because being a religious order they called each other ‘Frate’, which means brother. In the latter painting, St. Jerome is shown in an intimate moment sitting on his bed, concentrating on his writing and illuminated by a strong light from left to right, almost like theatrical stage lighting, accentuating the subject’s flesh and the white skull on the table. The skull and the unlit candle on the table are symbols of death.
After a short break, the group visited Casa Lanfreducci, which is the headquarters of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta (SMOM). Here, Dane Munro talked in detail about the present role of this 900 year-old charitable institution and how it functions in today’s world. At the end of his talk he took a Q & A session with the audience.