Monday 24 February 2014

Lindos, Rhodes

The Acropolis of Lindos  was one of the first castles to be captured by the Order of St.John during their long campaign to conquer Rhodes. Initially the Knights had been concerned only to disrupt the pirates who used the island's harbours to attack Christian shipping in the Aegean. In 1306 Master Foulques de Villaret, who had been the Order's first Admiral , sailed for Rhodes (from Cyprus) with two galleys and some transport vessels carrying 35 Knights and 500 infantry. En route they were joined by a Genoese buccaneer Vignolo de' Vignoli and two more galleys. The city of Rhodes  easily beat off their assault but in November they managed to capture the fortress of Philermo.

The Knights of St.John reacted with great speed to the catastrophe that befell the Order of the Temple. In September 1307 Clement V confirmed the Hospitallers in their possession of Rhodes, only a few weeks before Philip IV moved against the Templars. The pope made the grant to Villaret in person who had traveled to the papal court where he was to spend the  two years trying to raise a crusade to complete the conquest of the island.


Meanwhile in October, 1307, the Hospitallers captured the fortress of Lindos. The stronghold occupies a triangular outcrop of rock with harbours on two sides and only accessible form the north. This easily defensible position had meant that Lindos was settled as early as 2500 BC and by 1000 BC there was a temple to Athena. Lindos became one of the three important cities on the island whose citizens founded colonies at Naples in Italy and Gela on Sicily. After the three cities combined to found the city of Rhodes in 408 BC Lindos lost its importance. However during the Byzantine era the acropolis was maintained as a fortress.


Once the Hospitallers had taken Lindos they took advantage of the existing fortifications to turn it into one of their strongest castles on Rhodes. The castle was large enough to accommodate the citizenry and their livestock and possessions when the Turks raided the island, which happened frequently. Lindos also housed a prison where malefactors and knights who had fallen foul of the Rule were incarcerated.


Master Foulques de Villaret at the head of a small crusade completed the conquest of Rhodes in 1310. The occupation of the island minded the Pope to grant the Hospitallers most of the Templar's estates in 1312. In a few years de Villaret had led his Order from the depth of despair following the loss of the holy Land to a position of unprecedented wealth and power. It seems that this dazzling trajectory effected his judgement. Seemingly secure in his pre-eminent position on Rhodes he adopted the dictatorial ways of the despot, he was accused of womanizing and of drinking. Things came to a head for him in 1317 when the brethren rebelled, led by the elderly and embittered Draper, Fra' Maurice de Pagnac who tried to murder him. But de Villaret managed to escape, to the acropolis of Lindos where he was besieged by his fraternal enemies who elected de Pagnac Master in his stead.


In 1319 Pope John XXII confirmed Fra' Foulque as Master but immediately induced him to abdicate and he retired to a commandery in Languedoc. Fra' Maurice was sent to defend the Order's properties in Armenia, and under papal direction the Order elected Fra' Helion de Villeneuve as their new Master. But Fra' Foulques legacy was that the members of his Order would become known as the Knights of Rhodes, for two hundred years.

Saturday 22 February 2014

'Les Tenture des Indes', Valletta

One day, in the summer of 1710, one of the many pirate ships that patrolled the Straits of Sicily at that time, attacked and captured a brigantine belonging to the navy of the Order of St. John. Among the booty taken were four bales containing the ten wonderful tapestries known as the 'Tenture des Indes' that now hang in the Council Chamber of the Magistral Palace in Valletta. The ransom asked by the pirates was apparently, equal to the cost of their manufacture.

When your eyes have become accustomed to the dim light in the Council Chamber you are surrounded by a feast of the exotic: ten tapestries depicting the legends of the 'Indes Galantes' and the 'Noble Savage' - a rich display of hunters, fishermen and Indian princes set against backgrounds of teeming tropical abundance, small animals, exotic birds, fish, reptiles, fruit and luxuriant vegetation. Products of a time when exploration and the wonders of distant unknown lands had captured the romantic imagination, and the accuracy with which the hitherto unknown species were depicted is incredible.

It is hard to believe that these ten panels are tapestries and not paintings, and that the wonderful intensity and variety of expression on the faces of the animals has been achieved with only twenty shades of wool and the one shade of yellow silk that is used for the highlights in the water, and for the background skies. They also have a provenance as exotic as their subject matter.

Count John Maurice of Nassau, a cousin of the Prince of Orange who was known as the 'Brazilian', made various expeditions to Africa, South America and the West Indes between 1636 and 1644, when he was governor of Brazil. On these voyages, aimed at scientific and anthropological research, he took with him two artists, Francois Post and Albert Eckhout, who made drawings and paintings of the people, animals and plants they encountered.

In 1679 the Count gave these paintings to Louis XIV, and they inspired the King to have them woven into tapestries on the royal looms at Gobelins. He gave the work to his Painter in Ordinary, Charles Lebrun, who was also director of the Gobelins, and was to make ten cartoons from the paintings.

When the first set of 'Tenture des Indes' was produced in 1692 the novel subjects, luxuriant vegetation and 'Indian' figures introduced a new theme into late 17th century Gobelins manufacture. They were so much in demand that by 1693 the celebrated animal painter Francois Desportes was asked to retouch the original cartoons for use on the high- warp looms. Later he was asked to paint new versions of eight of the original designs. Thus there are two versions of the tapestries, those like the ones in Malta, which are the only complete set existing, made before 1725, and those after 1725, which are better known in France.

Fra. Raymond Perellos y Roccaful was elected Grand Master of the Order of St. John on 7th February 1697; and he gave as part of his Goia (an obligatory dowry to the Order on his election), two sets of valuable tapestries. A Flemish set with a religious theme went to the Conventual Church of St. John in Valletta, the other set, the 'Tenture des Indes' he gave to adorn the Council Chamber of the Magistral Palace, a room sixty-five feet long, twenty-five feet wide and twenty-seven feet high. Three pieces hang each side of the room between the windows and at each of the four corners a piece is hung to cover the ends of the room before the door cases begin. As they all have the arms of Perellos woven into the borders at the top it is likely that they were woven specially to these measurements. For 268 years this wonderful room was where the Council of the Order of St. John met.

Wednesday 19 February 2014

Assumption of Our Lady, Birkirkara

The Church of the Assumption of Our Lady is the old parish church of Birkirkara. The church was designed by Vittorio Cassar around 1600 and in plan is laid out on the Latin Cross. The carved interior is one of the richest on the island.

The finest part of the building though is the facade which was designed by the young Tommasso Dingli and begun in 1617. The facade is based on a classical temple front and is said to have been the first use of giant Corinthian capitals in Malta. The exquisite carving of the interior is repeated on the facade to wonderful effect. The delicacy and detail of the ornamentation that would never be equaled in Malta again.. A probably apocryphal story is that the carving was the work of a Sicilian criminal who had sought sanctuary in the church.

In 1753 the Church of St.Helen was built and this replaced the Assumption of the Virgin as the parish church of Birkirkara.  The unused church was allowed to deteriorate, until during  the earthquake of 1856 the dome and the roof collapsed.

Sunday 16 February 2014

Temple Manor, Strood

The manor of Strood near the River Medway in Kent was given to the Order of the Temple by Henry II in 1159. The hall was built at the beginning of the 13th century to provide accommodation for their knights and other dignitaries travelling to Dover and on to the Holy Land. By the 14th century the estate had been farmed out to tenants and the income was used to support the military activities of the Order in the East.

When in 1312 the Order of the Temple was suppressed in England, all their assets including Temple manor passed to the Order of St.John. An inventory of 1313 at Strood lists a hall, a chamber a chapel and a barn. Some years later the Prior of St. John complained that the King was still occupying former Templar properties, including Strood. The protest had no effect and in 1324 Strood, although legally the property of the Order of St.John, had to be ceded to the King. In 1342 Edward III granted it to the Countess of Pembroke who gifted it to support her nunnery at Denny in Cambridgeshire, another former Templar property.

The brick fireplace was inserted into the hall in the 17th century when the manor was used as a farmhouse.

Friday 14 February 2014

Our Lady of Victory, Valletta

The first building  in the new city of Valletta was the small church dedicated to the Nativity of Our Lady. The church was re-named Our Lady of Victory as the Great Siege of 1566 had been raised on 7th September, the eve of the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady. That year, a Chapter General of the Order decided that henceforth the 8th of September the Feast of the Nativity of Our Lady would be celebrated, in perpetuity, with great pomp and ceremony to commemorate the victory over the Turks.

After the death of the hero of the siege, Grand master Fra. Jean de la Valette he was laid to rest in the Church, the first person to be buried in the city he had founded and was named after him..When the Church of St. John had been completed, his remains and those of Grand Master del Monte were reinterred in the crypt of the new church.

In 1617 Our Lady of Victory was raised to a Parish Church of the Order and the paintings of St. Anthony the Abbot and St. Anthony the Confessor which the Knights had brought with them from Rhodes and which had been kept at St. Anthony in Birgu (Vittoriosa) were moved to the church.

Originally  simple, the facade of Our Lady of Victory was remodeled in the Baroque style and the campanile was added in 1752. Grand Master Perellos commissioned the bronze bust of Pope Innocent XII that was placed on the facade, in recognition of his successful intervention in the dispute between the Bishop of Malta and the Prior of St.John's.

Wednesday 5 February 2014

St.James, Valletta

The Church of St. James the Apostle in Merchants Street (formerly Strada San Giacomo or St. James Street) Valletta was the conventual church of the Langue of Portugal, Castile and Leon. The first church dedicated to St.James was a much more modest structure built in the early days of the city. One hundred years later in 1710, the Church of St.James was rebuilt in the latest Baroque style, the first in Malta to be influenced by Bernini's work in Rome. The architect was Romano Carapecchia who had joined the Order as an architect and water engineer, St. James was his first building. The cost of the building was met by the Priory of Castile, by Cardinal d'Arias and other generous benefactors.

The facade has two stories, and though richly carved, the stone follows the restraint of the Roman example rather than the overblown style found in Spain and Sicily. The doors, windows and niches produce a dramatic chiaroscuro effect in the bright Mediterranean sun.  A magnificent cartouche over the central window frames a coat of arms. The church is crowned by an unusual elliptical cupola. Inside, the altar is notable for its dramatic width and height and it has a painting of St. James by Arcangela Paldini (1599-1622) as its centerpiece. A niche under the painting contains a 'miraculous' image of the Madonna of Soledad brought to Malta by a Spanish member of the Order.

When it was finished the Prior of the Conventual Church of St.John's placed St. James into the care of a secular priest of the Maltese Diocese who acted as Sacristan and he was provided with accommodation nearby. Another priest, a Conventual Chaplain was appointed as the Church's Beneficiary.

The festivities by which Langue of Portugal, Castile and Leon honoured the Feast Day of their patron began on the eve of the feast when after prayers were offered in St.John's. Then the Grand Master, with the Knight's Grand Cross and other Palace officials processed to St. James. A service was held there assisted by two Conventual Chaplains of the Langue and the congregation was often said to spill out onto Merchants Street.

On the morning of the Feast Day, July 25th, at about 8am, the Grand Master, accompanied by his retinue of Grand Crosses and the Palace entourage, processed with all the accustomed pomp and pageantry to St. James.  A solemn Choral High Mass was celebrated as on the eve, by the Beneficiary and the Conventual Chaplains of the Langue. At the conclusion of the High Mass a procession led by the Vice- Prior of the Conventual Church left St. John's with Ostensory and Relic of St.James. A motet was sung in praise of the saint before the procession returned through the streets to St.John's with the Relic, followed by the grand Master and attendant dignitaries.

At St. John's the Prior of the Church then entered wearing the pontifical robes surrounded by his assistants and the Antiphon of the Feast was chanted. The Relic was then censed and the ritual prayer of the Saint was intoned by the Prior who then placed the Relic on the High Altar. The pontifical ceremony of the Feast then got under way in the presence of the Grand Master and the assembled Knights.

Monday 3 February 2014

Watchtower, Margat

The isolated watchtower known as the Burj al-Sabi, or Boy's Tower stands on the edge of the precipice above the narrow coastal strip and the main road from Banias to Tartus in Syria. It was built by the Order of St. John at the same time c.1186, as they built the enormous fortress of Margat further inland. There was a wall that stretched from Margat right down to the seashore with a gate to control movement along the main road. This was the southern frontier of the Principality of Antioch, the second largest of the Crusader States and so the tower would have been used primarily for collecting taxes and tariffs from people and goods crossing to and from the County of Tripoli to the south.

After Saladin's crushing victory at the Horns of Hattin in 1187, his  army on its triumphal foray to the north passed right under the walls of the Burj al-Sabi although it made no effort to take the tower. The Buj al-Sabi remained in the hands of the Hospitallers until the fall of Margat to the army of the Sultan Baibars in 1285.

Sunday 2 February 2014

Swingfield Commandery

Swingfield near Dover in Kent was home to some of the sisters of the Order of St. John before they were moved to Mynchin Buckland, in Somerset in 1180. After the nuns departure, the Knights of St. John established a commandery at Swingfield which they held until the Dissolution of the monasteries in England in 1540.

The only commandery building to survive is the chapel with part of the adjoining hall, although the remains of other buildings are discernible in earth works to the south and west of the chapel. The chapel was built in the thirteenth century and still has its piscine, a stone basin for washing sacred vessels and an aumbrey a cupboard for storing communion vessels. These and the three lancet windows in the east wall all survived the chapel's conversion into a farmhouse after the Dissolution.

The report into the state of the Order of St. John in England ordered by Prior de Thame in 1338, found at Swingfield Commandery a manor house with a garden valued at 6s.8d. a year, the church at £10, a share of the church at Tilmanstone at £8 and the confraria or voluntary contributions at £20. Further income came from rents in the neighbourhood bringing the total receipts of the commandery to £82 4s.4d.

The expences born by Swingfield Commandery  included £11 6s. for bread, £11 for flesh, fish and other foodstuffs, and £10 for beer. 69s for robes and other necessities for the commander Fra, Ralph Basset and the brother Fra. Alan Mounceux, 20s. for the repair of buildings, 40s. for the visit of the prior for two days, and the stipends of the three chaplains, a squire, two clerks, a chamberlein, a cook, a baker, a porter, a bailiff, a mower, two grooms and a page, ammounting to a total of £52 18s. 4d. The difference was paid to the Common Treasury for the support of the Convent at Rhodes.