The Conventual Church of St. John at Valletta

Early Knight's Painting in Malta - Part 1

On 21st. December 1522, Philippe Villiers de l'Isle Adam, Grand Master of the Knights of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem was outnumbered, after a protracted siege, by an invading Ottoman force. He surrendered on terms to Sultan Suleiman the fortress island of Rhodes, which had been the Convent of his Crusading Order of warrior and nursing monks since 1309. His fleet, carrying all the members of the Order, and a substantial number of local people who chose to accompany them, left Rhodes on the night of 1st January 1523. For seven years the Knights and their cortege moved uneasily from one Christian stronghold to another, while their remorseless leader used his great prestige and diplomatic skill to secure for them a new base where they could rearm themselves to attempt the recapture of Rhodes. In March 1530 they accepted, after considerable hesitation, Charles V's gift of the Maltese Islands.

The Knights, who were drawn from the most haughtily aristocratic families of European Christendom, had the necessary wealth and cultural sophistication to patronize important works of art but, during the first thirty-five years of their stay in Malta, they were troubled by other, more pressing, considerations. Still generally undetermined on establishing a permanent Convent here, and frequently alerted by the threats of Ottoman attacks and of razzias by African Mohammedans, they generally concentrated their energy and money on improving existing  fortification works. They undertook only a limited building programme in the Grand Harbour area where they settled in the medieval port of Birgu, at the foot of the Castello a Mare; living conditions here were so poor that houses carried roofs of reeds or tiles that were frequently blown away by the wind. The few buildings they erected were distinguished by the Gothic quadripartite vault which though, seemingly, new to Malta was already considered old fashioned, especially in nearby Italy where the Renaissance style of Architecture was in vogue.

The Knights brought with them from Rhodes their most treasured possessions that included a fabulous collection of gold and silver reliquaries embellished with gems and precious stones, rich church vestments, illuminated liturgical books and three highly venerated icons of the Virgin one of which, popularly known as The Madonna of Damascus, survives as a cult object in the Greek Catholic Church at Valletta. This is a work of an exceptionally high quality, remarkable for its human poignancy and simple sureness of line. It is iconographically very similar to the famous Virgin of Vladimir at the Tretiakov Gallery, Moscow, and was probably, likewise painted in Constantinople in the early twelfth century. It gets its name from a pious legend according to which the Knights miraculously acquired it from Damascus in 1475. One of the other two icons, that of the Eleimonitria Madonna, was shattered in 1942 when the Greek Church was destroyed during an air-raid on the Grand Harbour, in World War II; a few fragments are preserved at the Restoration Department of the Valletta Museum of Fine Arts where they were deposited in 1978. The third icon was the famous Philermos Madonna which Napoleon Bonaparte allowed Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch to take with him out of the island when he captured Malta from the Knights in 1798. This holy image had renowned miraculous powers but, judging from photographs, it was, apparently, less artistically significant than The Madonna of Damascus. It was donated, together with other precious relics, to Tzar Paul of Russia in 1799 and, until 1919 it was venerated in the Grand Chapel of the Winter Palace at St. Petersburg. After the Bolshevik Revolution, it came into the possession of King Alexander I of Yugoslavia and was kept in the chapel of the Royal Palace at Belgrade; its present whereabouts are unknown.
 
At Birgu, the icon of the Philermos Madonna was venerated in the church of San Lorenzo a Mare which the Knights used as their Conventual Church. It miraculously escaped undamaged when the church was devastated by fire on 1st April 1532. After that the church was rebuilt, supposedly in Gothic style. Grand Master L’Isle Adam donated to it a retable of St. Lawrence which served as the main pala d'altare, or altarpiece, until 1689 when it was substituted with a large canvas by Mattia Preti depicting the martyrdom of the saint. On the central panel of the retable, a smooth and boyish-looking St. Lawrence, wearing a rich brocade, sat awkwardly on an altar-throne placed in an apse niche, inside a barrel-vaulted room. Resting his feet on the grid-iron of his martyrdom, he looked timidly at the spectator as he pointed out to him an open gospel-book that he held perched on his left knee. In the back-ground two open arcades gave balance and depth to the composition and permitted the eye to gaze into the distance of a peaceful landscape, illuminated by a limpid blue sky. Two shields, inscribed with the arms of L'lsle Adam, balanced one another in the top part of the panel while the date 1532 was painted in the bottom right hand corner. This was, perhaps, the first Late Renaissance painting to reach Malta. Remarkable for its harmonious and logically thought-out composition, it was probably commissioned from a central or north-Italian painter and it displayed a familiarity with early sixteenth-century artistic trends in painting and architecture. There were certain limitations-knowledge of perspective was, for example, imperfect and St. Lawrence looked like a dressed-up doll - but this did not lessen from its importance as a key work in the early history of painting in Malta. The side panels (of which unfortunately no photographs could be traced) depicted episodes from the saint's life. Two of them were, until the outbreak of World War II, preserved in the Chapter Hall of the Church of St. Lawrence at Birgu where they probably perished, together with the central panel, when the building was destroyed during an air raid on 16th January 1941.

Another important sixteenth century work, likewise closely connected with the Knights of St. John, is the beautiful triptych of The Lamentation for Christ that, for a long time, was displayed on a little altar in the Treasury of the Conventual Church of St. John at Valletta; it is now on loan to the Cathedral Museum at Mdina. The history of this beautiful work is uncertain but, according to tradition, it was originally an altar-piece in the chapel of one of the galleys of the Order. Painted in tempera on woodit is the work of an accomplished Flemish artist under the influence of the Italian Late Renaissance style. On the central panel, the tragedy of Golgotha is poignantly unfolded for our contemplation as the Virgin presses to her the lifeless body of her Crucified Son while Mary of Magdala wipes away a tear and a haggard St. John wrings his hands in grief. Mary of Magdala appears again, in an idyllic landscape, on the left-hand volet where, with cool elegance and mannered grace, she carries her symbols. Keeping her company, on the right volet, is Joseph of Arimathea who wears a quaintly picturesque hat and looks sorrowfully at the piteous spectacle on the central panel.

A work that is artistically very inferior but has more intimate historical connections is the painting of St. Agatha Enthroned that hangs in the same hall as The Lamentation at the Cathedral Museum.Probably commissioned from a Sicilian artist, it was executed at the request of the priest Don Giuseppe Manduca who, presumably, donated it as an ex-voto to the church of St. Agatha at Mdina of which he was beneficiary. The occasion was the combined Ottoman-North African raid of 1551 when the siege of Mdina was miraculously lifted after St. Agatha appeared, in a dream, to a cloistered nun and instructed her to persuade Don Giuseppe to place her marble statue on the bastions. In the painting, Don Giuseppe puts in an appearance as a diminutive figure who kneels in prayer. He wears his black cassock but discards his berretta on the podium of the throne as he holds up his breviary and looks imploringly at the Virgin Saint who towers in front of him. The individualized features suggest that this is a portrait of the ecclesiastic titled family with endless wealth and prestige. The figure of St. Agatha is less satisfactory. Holding a book and the martyr's palm in one hand and her symbols in the other, she sits rigidly on an uncomfortable colonnaded throne, supported by gilt griffons, to receive the Crown of the Blessed from two small angels who carry palm fronds. A pleasant landscape, that is obviously not Maltese, recedes into the background while, in the foreground, the tiled pavement demonstrates the artist's interest in the laws of perspective which, however, he has not satisfactorily mastered.

The works discussed above were produced at a time when a boom in church-building created a demand for icone or altar-paintings and, sometimes, for wall-paintings as well; they may, therefore, have had a considerable impact. Outside Birgu and Mdina, in the rural parishes, paintings were often the work of village craftsmen who employed a traditional technique and in whose styles external influences were only faintly echoed. Occasionally, a work may have been imported from Italy or, perhaps, it may have been commissioned from itinerant Sicilian or South Italian painters who may have stopped at Malta from time to time. Most of these humble works have been destroyed but a considerable number survive and await proper recording and study.


The Madonna of Damascus, survives as a cult object in the Greek Catholic Church at Valletta.
The Madonna of Damascus, survives as a cult object in the Greek Catholic Church at Valletta.
The Greek Catholic Church at Valletta showing the painting of The Madonna of Damascus
The Greek Catholic Church at Valletta showing the painting of The Madonna of Damascus
Inside the Greek Catholic Church at Valletta
Inside the Greek Catholic Church at Valletta
The Lamentation for Christ
The Lamentation for Christ
For a long time, was displayed on a little altar in the Treasury of the Conventual Church of St. John at Valletta; it is now on loan to the Cathedral Museum at Mdina.
The retable of St. Lawrence
The retable of St. Lawrence
This used to serve as the main pala d'altare, or altarpiece, until 1689 when it was substituted with a large canvas by Mattia Preti depicting the martyrdom of the saint as shown in this picture.

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