Friday, 18 March 2016

The Order of St. John


The experience of visiting several wonderful architectural buildings in Malta commissioned by the Order of St. John compelled me to augment my scant knowledge of them and discover more.
The 51st Grand Master, French knight Jean de la Cassière, commissioned the building of St. Johns Co Cathedral in Valletta. The interior is richly decorated and opulently embellished in gold - it is considered to be one of the finest examples of High Baroque architecture in Europe, and one of the world's great cathedrals.
Replica of Caravaggio's St. Jerome Writing - the original is now housed in the Cathedral's Oratory which acts as a museum and where no photographs are allowed
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The story of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem (the Knights Hospitallers) begins in the C11th, when Italian merchants obtained permission from the Muslim caliph to set up a Christian hospice in Jerusalem. In the beginning the calling of the Order was principally to care for the sick, but in time the emphasis shifted to a military role, that of fighting for the faith. In 1187 the knights were driven from Jerusalem by Saladin, and then spent the following centuries fighting different Muslim leaders from their bases in Acre, Cyprus, and Rhodes before coming to Malta. They were given the island by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V in 1530 and stayed for over 260 years. Their legacy to Malta is huge -  grand palaces, churches, fortresses, citadels, watch towers located at strategic points around the coast, and many of the buildings are still filled with wonderful treasures

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 The cathedral floor is made up of 400 highly ornate inlaid pietra dura marble slabs. However, this is not just a splendid marble pavement floor, each slab represents a knight's tomb.
As mentioned in a previous post there are eight side chapels in the cathedral which belong to different langues. Having taken vows of poverty, chastity and obedience each knight then became a member of one of the eight langues based on their language or geographical origin

Three of the langues were French - France being divided in the C13th into France, Provence and the Auvergne.  The other langues were Aragon, Castile, Italy, Germany, and England. In Valletta each langue built an auberge where they lived together. They were headed by a pilier who had a set function: for example the pilier of Italy was the Grand Admiral: the pilier of Provence was the Finance and Ordnance Manager: the pilier of France was Head of the Order's Hospitals. Their overall head, the Grand Master, was elected for life and was subject only to the authority of the Pope
Auberge De Castille
Auberge De Castille in Valletta now houses the offices of the Prime Minister

Entrance to the Grand Master's Palace, Valletta
As the years passed, corruption and internal dissent undermined the effectiveness and reputation of the Order. However, their place in history and their bravery in war have ensured their fame and the honorary title: Knights of Malta. With headquarters in Rome, the orgainsation today is known as the Sovereign Military Order of Malta
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As a postscript it was in the oratory of the cathedral that I saw the two magnificient paintings by Caravaggio. He was a key C17th Italian Renaissance painter of the High Baroque tradition but led a violent life which included street brawls, murder, threats of imprisonment, multiple exiles - his exile on Malta was self imposed, and his death at the age of 38 still remains shrouded in mystery although surrounded by many theories.
The Beheading of John the Baptish is a monumental piece of work. Painted with the artist's trademark high contrast chiaroscuro and realism, it captures St. John sprawled on the ground in a dark alley. This is the only work that Caravaggio ever signed, his name is written in the saint's blood. It is his largest work and also considered to be his greatest.
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In contrast the painting of St. Jerome Writing is a softer much more benign, gentle image. The coat of arms seen on the painting are those of Fra Ippolito Malaspina, an important Italian knight within the Order, who had previously been the Admiral of the Papal Fleet - the painting was most likely commissioned by him, and then bequeathed to the Order on his death.
As soon as Caravaggio arrived in Malta he found favour with the Order by painting a series of portraits for them. Not only did he ingratiate himself with the Order but he was actually admitted to it as a knight. 
For a time he was on his best behaviour in Malta, but with his anger problems it didn't take long before his true colours were revealled to the Order when he began fighting and brawling with the other Knights. He was hauled off to a subterranean cell in Fort St. Angelo which is located at the centre of the Grand Harbour in Valletta, and he was deprived of his artistic materials. He made a successful and very daring escape - the first prisoner ever to break out of the fort. In the dead of night he completed his escape by catching a boat to Sicily. The knights immediately relieved him of his knighthood.

45 comments:

  1. Just beautiful Rosemary. Great history too.

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  2. How ornate and spectacular is the interior of St. John's cathedral and how complex the history!
    Some beautiful photography, as always.

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    1. Thanks Betty - the interior of the cathedral makes you gasp with surprise

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  3. Thank you, Rosemary, for another beautiful post; very interesting history and splendid pictures.

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    1. Glad you enjoyed the history Jeanneke

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  4. Caravaggio was a real badass. Queer too, I believe.

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    1. It is thought that a lot of his problems relate to lead poisoning like many other great painters

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  5. Fascinating post Rosemary and that painting of the beheading of John the Baptist is beyond magnificent.

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    1. I was surprised at just how extraordinarily large it is - it takes up the whole back wall in the oratory

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  6. Hello Rosemary, The Order of St. John did indeed leave some beautiful monuments in Malta. It is a pity that they never figured out a way to deal with an eccentric genius like Caravaggio--you were lucky to see his paintings in person.
    --Jim

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    1. It is really amazing that a little island like Malta has so many wonderful treasures to see. It is thought that many of Caravaggio's problems were the result of lead poisoning from paint.

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  7. Gorgeous photos, Rosemary. There's so much here - it needs a re-read. I don't know much about Caravaggio at all, beyond recognising his style. So very interesting that he lived among the knights but then 'blew it all'.

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    1. Caravaggio is an interesting Renaissance painter to study, he was a genius and a rogue. If there was a fight going on he was always at the centre of it, and actually murdered a competitor.

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  8. I have found your Malta posts fascinating - and your photos are stunning, Rosemary. It's a place I'd love to visit. My grandfather was there with the Navy before the First World War - he actually dived into Valetta Harbour to save someone from drowning (the brave gene died out with him).

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    1. 2018 is the year to visit Valetta Mike when it becomes European City of Culture - everything is being restored and cleaned now in preparation.

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  9. An intriguing story again. What marvellous details! The gilded woodcarving in the round photo is magnificent.

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    1. I am pleased that you found the story of interest - there were so many wonderful things to photograph in the cathedral that it was difficult to choose.

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  10. So many different influences in such a little state ! Incredible opulence and ornaments in the cathedral and the paintings of Caravaggio are amazing artworks. I do prefer the softer one of St . Jerome, and the way he created light is unique.

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    1. He created the most astonishing catalogue of work during such a short life.

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  11. I would never expect to find such things on tiny Malta. Beautiful.

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    1. There is still even more to come Janey.

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  12. A lovely post, full of such interesting information. The cathedral is striking with so much detail to look at. It is taking me quite a time to study your beautiful photos so I imagine it takes ages to look at it all when you're actually there! Caravaggio's art is quite remarkable, even if the beheading of St John the Baptist is such a brutal scene.

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    1. The cathedral is particularly overwhelming when you first enter - it takes you by surprise.
      Caravaggio's work often seems to run in tandem with his own life which was pretty brutal.

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  13. I feel overwhelmed by the dazzling and ornate brilliance of the interior of St. John's Cathedral...., a little too much for me, but I’m very charmed by the architectural beauty of Auberge de Castille.

    Yoko

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    1. Perhaps it is a little too much Yoko, but it has many wonderful treasures to see.

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  14. Hi Rosemary,

    Your photos are always amazing and thanks for showing us. How opulent the Cathedral is with all the gold and so much detail.
    Hope you are having a lovely weekend
    Carolyn

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    1. Hi Carolyn - thank you so much you have just made my start to the day. Sunday has dawned rather cloudy, fingers crossed that it will brighten up.

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  15. Dear Rosemary, Well,I got my dose of gold for a few weeks. What splendor and what great photographs!
    You have enough material for a very fine book. So when?

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    1. Dear Gina - the gold is certainly exhuberant in the cathedral, it took me completely by surprise. Thanks for your very kind comment, you are always so generous.

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  16. Wow, awesome photos and sharing history is amazing! The buildings are so ornate and beautiful. I never tire of looking at this wonderful architecture. Happy Sunday from your newest follower.

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    1. Dear Linda - thank you for visiting and for your comment. I am delighted that you enjoyed seeing the architecture and for following - I will pop over during the coming week to see you.

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  17. I love these photos and your explanations; now I want to go visit Malta and these sights. The Knights were noble in defending their faith and what gorgeous architecture and paintings.

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    1. Thank you Terra for your kind comment - if you want to visit Malta then the best time to go there is in 2018 when Valletta starts its year as European City of Culture.

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  18. Beautiful photo's of St John's cathedral I enjoyed reading more about the order of St John.

    Madelief x

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    1. I am pleased that you enjoyed reading more about the Order of St. John Madelief

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  19. The cathedral is richly decorated. We do not know what to admire. I even like the floor. Regards.

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    1. You are right Giga there is much to admire in this cathedral

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  20. Just catching up on blog reading, and what a wonderful post about the Knights of St John. The cathedral is amazing as is their history, and the gilded pipe organ quite incredible and beautiful. Caravaggio never disappoints, and the Beheading is fantastic, as you say, his best. What a pity his life was so brutal, shortened it seems by a difficult personality. But what a genius!

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    1. Poor old Caravaggio was what we would term a bit of a hooligan today, but his problems and early death are also thought to have been much exacerbated by lead poisoning.

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  21. Very interesting! I enjoy Caravaggio's work. He sounds like a scoundrel but I'm sure had a lot of great stories to tell.

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    1. He was a naughty boy, but he also suffered from lead poisoning too which exacerbated his problems.

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  22. The arches alone are utterly incredible in their intricacy and in lays. Amazing. The marble slabs representing each knight are so compelling. I wonder how much histry each tells. Is there a handbook one could purchase or get on those?
    I love Caravaggio's work with this one being no exception. Never realised that his only signed piece was there. T
    These photos and your write up really do offer such an incredible glimpse into another world, it's history and how well preserved everything is too. In this age of ISIS and such, I find it incredible that they were ever allowed to build there in the first place, let alone that it wasn't destroyed in the ensuing battles afterwards.

    I find that the Knight's lives and vows of chastity, poverty, etc, so intriguing, so different to what the modern uneducated, TV inspired world thinks of today. Many years ago I read an autobiography of a knight where I not only learned so much about their lives and travles (he was at the signing the Magna Carta, etc) but also how important it was to them to be men of character and faith. Distinguished indeed.

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    1. The fact that the knights were fighting with the muslim leaders for hundreds of years must be of significance for us today - nothing it appears has changed.
      I wanted to explore more about the Order of St. John as there is a place here in the Cotswolds where the Knights Hospitallers established a preceptory that I want to investigate.

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    2. Ooh, looking forward to that post! another amazing place near you!

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