Marble Tombstones – highly decorated expressions of triumph
One of the most precious treasures at St John’s is the splendid inlaid marble floor. The entire nave is covered with marble tombstones which commemorate some of the most illustrious Knights of the Order.
All the tombstones are to original designs and composed of coloured inlaid marble. They date from the early 17th century to the late 18th century.
Each tombstone is highly decorated with expressions of triumph, fame and death. Skeletons and skulls are often included in the iconography of the tombstones.
Amongst the most popular symbols are the angel of fame blowing a trumpet and angels holding laurel wreaths as symbols of victory.
Several tombstones depict weapons and battle scenes as testimony of the Knights’ chivalry. The epitaphs are in Latin and often describe their virtues and achievements.
The various Grand Masters of the Order of St John donated several sets of liturgical vestments to their conventual church to be used for important ceremonial occasions.
The inventories of the Order record thirteen such gifts which are made out of silk and satin and profusely embroidered with multicoloured silk yarns, often using gold and silver threads.
The colour of the vestments was chosen carefully according to the liturgical calendar to add symbolic meaning to the liturgy.
Of particular interest is the set donated by Grand Master Nicolas Cotoner. The vestments are richly embroidered with floral motifs, many of which carry a symbolic meaning.
The Flemish Tapestries
The set of Flemish Tapestries at St John’s Co-Cathedral was the gift made to the church by the Aragonese Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccaful upon his election in 1697. The tapestries are the largest complete set in the world and consist of twenty-nine pieces ordered from the Brussels atelier of Judocus de Vos.
The tapestries are woven entirely from the finest wool and silk yarns and measure 6 meters in height. The overwhelming dimensions and the exuberant character of the designs based on cartoons prepared by the renowned artist Peter Paul Rubens render this set one of the most spectacular interpretations of baroque art. By 1701 the set had reached Malta and brought the embellishment of the church to a climax. The full length portrait of Grand Master Perellos hanging majestically over the doorway had a lasting impression as the visitor exited the church.
The entire set of tapestries consists of fourteen large scenes depicting the life of Christ and allegories and fourteen panels representing the Virgin Mary, Christ the Saviour and the Apostles. This grand set of tapestries portrays the principal and fundamental Divine truths of the Catholic faith and was intended to convey a message, that is, the supremacy of the Catholic Church and the fame and grandeur of the Grand Master and the Order. The tapestries were originally suspended from the main cornice along the nave of the church during important occasions such as the feast of St John the Baptist.
History of Tapestries
Over the years the Grand Masters, dignitaries and knights donated gifts of high artistic value to St John’s Conventual Church and made enormous contributions to enrich their church with only the best works of art. St John’s owes its magnificence to the munificence of its patrons who contributed towards its embellishments.
The set of Flemish tapestries is one of the most outstanding private gifts. It was the gift made by the Aragonese Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccaful elected in 1697. The statute of the Order dictated that newly elected Grand Masters would present the conventual church of the Order with a gift or ‘gioia’ on their appointment. The tapestries are the largest complete set in the world consisting of twenty-nine pieces ordered from the Brussels atelier of Judecos de Vos for the sum of 40,000scudi. The entire set consists of fourteen large scenes depicting the life of Christ and allegories and fourteen panels representing the Virgin Mary, Christ the Saviour and the Apostles. They were woven from the finest wool and silk yarns and based on the cartoons of the renowned artist Peter Paul Rubens.
By 1701 the set had reached Malta and brought the embellishment of the church to a climax. The tapestries were originally suspended from the main cornice of the nave of the church during important occasions such as the feast of St John the Baptist.
These manuscripts relate to the early part of the Knights’ stay in Malta. They are by far the most beautifully executed choral books on the island. There are three sets – all gifts of various Grand Masters.
The Graduals of L’Isle Adam
The largest and most important set consists of 10 choral books and is the gift of Grand Master L’Isle Adam. These illuminated choral books called ‘graduals’ consist of chants for the mass of the Roman Church and accompany the communion service.
Each choral book features hand painted illuminations of exceptional beauty, with gold leaf as a background adding to their brilliance. These splendid miniatures (as they are called due to their minute detail) have been painted by different hands, reflecting the current artistic trend of each painter.
The Verdalle Antiphonaries
Another set of choral books, bearing the arms of Grand Master Verdalle, is included in this collection. Referred to as antiphonaries, they contain the sung parts of the divine office (the musical sections used during daily services, at the various canonical hours of the day that do not feature in graduals).
The Verdalle antiphonaries number seven in total and contain the Proper and Common of saints. All are in parchment and accommodate 150 illuminated initials each.
Antonie de Paule’s Antiphonaries
The collection of Grand Master Antonie de Paule consist of two manuscripts in parchment. They are antiphonaries for the Temporal cycle of the church year.
Ciro Ferri Monstrance
This was made to house the relic of St John the Baptist’s forearm.
A most precious relic for the Order, this was the hand that baptised Christ in the river Jordan.
The monstrance was ordered by Italian Grand Master Gregorio Carafa whose coat-of-arms can be seen prominently displayed. It is made of bronze and gilt with silver ornaments and was cast in Rome by Ciro Ferri, a well known sculptor whose style was particularly influenced by the leading Baroque sculptor Gianlorenzo Bernini.
The relic had a golden reliquary studded with precious stones. However, this was confiscated in 1798 when Napoleon invaded Malta.
The relic itself was taken out of Malta by the last Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch as he fled the island.
Christ the Saviour
The monumental bronze image of Christ the Saviour was commissioned from Alessandro Algardi, the famous Bolognese sculptor working in Rome.
The statue arrived in Malta in August 1639 and was originally installed in a large free-standing niche at the Grand Harbour. Originally Christ the Saviour held a globe in one hand and had the other raised, blessing those who arrived and departed from the Grand Harbour of Malta.
The sculpture has recently undergone restoration and, for preservation reasons, is kept indoors in the museum entrance. A replica of the original sculpture was placed on the pediment of the façade.
High altar carpet
The carpet of the main altar of St John’s Co-Cathedral was commissioned by The St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation and was executed by the prestigious Fundación Real Fàbrica de Tapices in Madrid.
The custom, handmade carpet was designed to reflect the Baroque style of the interior of the Co-Cathedral whilst also incorporating the Maltese coat-of-arms and the eight pointed cross of the Order. The carpet was installed in 2012.