07 February 2010

History from the Bottom Up: The Knights of Malta

(This is another post about the history of Malta, where we spent the first week of the new year. You can find our earlier posts on Maltese history here, here, and here.)

The History

When our last post left off, Malta was under Arab rule. In 1194, the Muslim rulers were driven out by the Sicilians, who re-established Catholicism and ruled via a feudal aristocracy. As Sicily itself passed into the hands of a succession of European feudal lords--most notably the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castille--Malta picked up aristocrats and cultural influences from the farthest corners of Christendom.

The late medieval and early modern periods saw an ongoing struggle between Christians and Muslims for control of the Mediterranean, of which the Crusades were a part. In this struggle, Malta was an important naval base for European forces, though it was very difficult to defend from North African pirates.

In 1522, the Knights Hospitallar (aka the Knights of St. John, later the Knights of Malta), one of the more successful of the crusading orders, were driven by the Ottoman Turks from their island fortress of Rhodes in the eastern Mediterranean. Charles V of Spain, who also owned much of Italy at the time, ceded Malta to the Knights to protect Italy from invasion from the south. The Knights fended off a much larger Turkish force in the Great Siege of 1565, then over a period of about 200 years, as the fight over the Mediterranean petered out, settled into a new role as an aristocratic order concerned mostly with trading throughout the Mediterranean and governing their island home. They also continued their association with medicine, which dates from their original mandate to assist pilgrims to the Holy Land.

The Knights are still around today: they're a Catholic charitable organization that funds hospitals around the world.

Now we'll look at some of what the Knights have left behind.

The Co-Cathedral of St. John

The Co-Cathedral of St. John (called that because the original cathedral of Malta is in Mdina) is the spiritual home of the Knights of Malta. It's also a way of making demonstrating that the Knights were really, really rich. Seriously, every inch of the place is covered in precious art: gold-leaf wood carvings, intricate marble tombstones, elaborate Renaissance murals, fine portraits and sculptures, etc.
The above is the sculpture behind the altar, which depicts St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the order, baptizing Christ.

The tombstones, set into the cathedral floor, are particularly interesting for their pre-Reformation imagery: nearly every one prominently displays death, while many display the angel of fame blowing a trumpet.
The most important knights--usually Grandmasters, who were the heads of the order--had full-on funerary sculptures, not just regular tombstones.

The aisles of the cathedral are divided into chapels, each one given over to one of the 8 langues (sub-groups) of the order. The langues themselves are an interesting reflection of the 12th-century political order under which the Knights were founded: in addition to the French langue, there's a langue of Auvergne and a langue of Provence; the Spanish kingdoms of Aragon and Castile belong to separate langues; and the langue of Germany is basically assumed to cover anything that wasn't part of the old Roman Empire, with England thrown in for good measure.

Each of the chapels is dedicated to a particular saint, and each focuses on a central piece of art.
Some of the chapels have been renovated, some are in various states of disrepair, and some are being refurbished as we speak, as part of Malta's general campaign to reinvent itself as a cultural and historical destination.

Off to one side of the nave is a magnificent little art museum, housing everything from Renaissance masterpieces to clerical vestments to 16th-century manuscript choral books.

Anyway, if you're in Valletta, don't miss St. John's--and don't be misled by its drab exterior.

You come to a point where you think, if you've seen one church, you've seen them all, but St. John's is in a category all its own. While the price of admission isn't cheap, it's well worth a look at the treasures within--and all the proceeds from ticket sales go towards restoration and conservation.

The Grand Harbor

Malta's strategic value as a naval base rests on its large natural harbors, the largest of which is the Grand Harbor, formed by the peninsulas of Valetta and the Three Cities.

The Knights of Malta fortified the bejeezus out of the harbor, building enormous battlements around each of the bordering cities. But the walls were no match for Nana! Muhahahaha!

The Prisons (and the Inquisition)

The Knights of Malta were a military order, and thus a popular dumping ground for the unruly sons of aristocrats throughout Europe (think military school). Of course, the Knights needed some way to keep these hordes of unruly young men in line, and if they doubled as a way to enforce spiritual order on their islands, all the better!

(Edit by Nana: That will teach me to ransack the Grand Harbor. Also, do you realize this is the third blog post in which I've gone to jail? Seriously: here and here. Do you think I should report this on my visa forms?)

Today, medieval and early-modern prisons dot the urban landscape of Malta. The best examples are in Victoria (on Gozo), Mdina, and Vittorioso, which is one of the Three Cities across the Grand Harbor from Valletta. Many of these feature elaborate prison graffiti, which are an attraction in and of themselves.
It has been suggested that carvings of hands like the one below were intended as a kind of signature for the illiterate.
Galleys like the one below were supposedly used to count out the length of a prison sentence, with each oar (I think) representing a certain length of time.

(Edit by Nana: We found this last graffito interesting because of the precision of the carving. We speculate that this was possible because somebody used a newspaper to stencil in their names. Unless somewhere out there is a mad graffitist who specializes in serif fonts...)

The largest of the prisons is the Inquisitor's Palace in Vittorioso. But it's not quite what you think: the Inquisition was of a much milder sort on Malta. The Inquisition was simply the authority for spiritual crimes, even minor ones, and as such was kind of like a more intense form of Catholic confession. For minor transgressions, typical penalties may have included mandatory alms, public prayer, or other forms of penance.

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