One of the highlights of the age-old conflict between Christians and Muslims was during the Crusades in the Holy Land. The Order of St John of Jerusalem, Knights Hospitaller, born to provide medical assistance to pilgrims, soon turned into an efficient military force, with its own army, which distinguished itself in troubled times.
The salient episodes of the vicissitudes of the Order in the Holy Land are very well illustrated in the frescoes painted by Lionello Spada, around 1610, in the Grand Master’s Palace, Valletta, commissioned by Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt.
The Bolognese painter, nicknamed ‘ape of Caravaggio’ for his uncommon naturalistic talent, stayed in Malta from 1609 to 1614, attempting to emulate Merisi’s style. The mural paintings do not reveal, however, the adherence to the naturalism of Caravaggio’s ancestry, but rather betray reminiscences of the juvenile phase of Emilian Mannerism.
The Battle of Ascalon, fought on July 12, 1099, depicts the conflict that decided the fate of the First Crusade, won by the Christians in spite of their small number, when compared to the impressive formation of Muslims. The price of victory was dear: many perished and were enslaved.
The fresco reproduces the convulsive phases of the battle, focusing its attention on the capture of three brave knights, an incident that gave rise to the legend of Ismeria, as established by the writing on the lower part of work.
The three knights were led to Egypt and taken prisoner, but the caliph decided to save their life on condition that they converted to Islam. They instead converted his daughter, who was captivated by the beauty of the statue of the Madonna, made by the Virgin herself and carried into the prison cell by an angel, as the knights were asleep.
The miraculous intervention of the Virgin is depicted in the altarpiece of Our Lady of Liesse church, Valletta, painted by Enrico Arnaux in the first half of the 18th century in a style that reveals influences from paintings by Mattia Preti and Stefano Erardi.
The fresco depicting the Miracle of the Loaves Turned into Stones, illustrates the miraculous episode of Blessed Gerard Sasso, the Benedictine Italian monk who founded the Order in 1113.
Matteo Perez d’Aleccio’s contribution turned out to be crucial for the historical reconstruction of the Great Siege
During the siege of the city he used to throw loaves of bread from the walls of Jerusalem to hungry Christians, as shown in the painting by Cassarino, created around 1617, which today hangs in the Museum of Fine Arts in Valletta. Caught in the act, he was taken before Muslim authorities to be condemned, but the loaves, wrapped in cloth, were miraculously changed into stones, which led to the charges against him being dropped.
After the final defeat of Christians in Holy Land, the Order found refuge in the kingdom of Cyprus, until, under the leadership of Grand Master Folco de Villaret, the Order snatched Rhodes from the Muslims on August 15, 1309, after a two-year military campaign.
The main phases of the siege are illustrated in another fresco by Spada. In the foreground emerges the violent clash between European and Asian soldiers, visibly in difficulties, while, on the right, a column of Christian soldiers advance to conquer the fort, where, at the bottom, enemy flags still flutter. The writing that runs in the lower part, apart from being a historical document of fundamental importance, praises the grand master who led the knights to victory.
The decisive Muslim counterattack raged two centuries later, in the summer of 1523. After a six-month siege, the Order accepted surrender, retreating to Sicily, until it settled in Malta by order of Clement VII and Charles V, upon payment of a tribute to the Viceroy of Sicily.
The Islamic offensive regained strength with the Ottoman Empire, encouraged by the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, which marked the final sunset of the millennial Christian empire, heir to the Roman one.
The Turks, under the leadership of Mohammed II, had, in fact, knocked down the impregnable walls of the capital of the empire. The Muslim conquerors, who penetrated the Christian continent from the east, were restrained by Venetian fleets, which did not want to lose their commercial stations in the eastern Mediterranean, although the Turks continued to rule the roost with their fearsome pirate ships.
The Knights’ new headquarters in the heart of the Mediterranean was certainly an obstacle to Ottoman ambitions, so in 1565, Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent decided to attack Malta with an impressive fleet of 40,000 men, which just over 6,000 Christian soldiers heroically opposed.
The event is narrated by 13 frescoes on the Great Siege, painted by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio from 1576 to 1581. The artist, who introduced the Mannerist style to Malta, brought to the island Michelangelo’s manner, since he had worked with Buonarroti on the painting of the frescoes in the Sistine Chapel in Rome.
Here he had participated in the painting of some parts of the Fall of the Demons in the Judgement and had also created the two frescoes on the side walls depicting St Anthony Chased by Demons and the Finding of the Body of Moses, which replaced two previous frescoes by Luca Signorelli damaged by cracks.
The exquisite mural paintings, commissioned by Grand Master Jean de la Levesque Cassiere, are visible in the hall of St Michael and St George, also known as Throne Room, in the Grand Master’s Palace.
Once again, the artist obtained a commission of prestige, certainly the most important he could get in Malta considering the historical event that the frescoes immortalised.
After his devotional paintings in Rome, d’Aleccio in Malta painted historical subjects, characterised by high accuracy in details, apparent in the rendering of armour, costumes, and in the reproduction of military architecture and of battle formations.
His contribution turned out to be crucial for the historical reconstruction of the Great Siege of the island and a reference model for subsequent paintings.
Christian soldiers, under the leadership of Grand Master Jean de Vallette, put up a vigorous resistance, and were rewarded by the arrival of a Spanish fleet, sent by Philip II. Only then did the Turkish ships beat a retreat.
The coup de grâce to the Islamic offensive was inflicted with the decisive Battle of Lepanto, fought on October 7, 1571, between the Holy League and Ottoman Empire.
The Madonna and Child in Glory, Flanked by Saints John the Baptist and Lucia and the Battle of Lepanto at Her Foot, created by Sicilian painter Antonello Riccio, and which is kept at the Maritime Museum, Vittoriosa, depicts in the lower part the opposing naval formations, according to a scheme of ‘quotation marks’, of cartographical derivation, derived from the bronze monument of Don John of Austria, made by Andrea Calamech in Messina. He was probably also inspired by the frescoes of d’Aleccio.
On the lower left appears a knight with his hands clasped in prayer, probably the donor, with his eyes turned towards the heavenly group. On the right, devils flutter over the Turkish fleet, while, on the opposite side, the Christian ships are escorted aloft by angels; in the centre, the coat of arms of the Grand Master Hugues Loubenx de Verdalle, suggests that the painting was created during his reign (1581-1595).
Various distinguished painters have narrated the knights’ exploits and their glory lives through the ages
The same pattern of battle is renewed in a valuable Maltese painting, the Martyrdom of St Catherine, kept in the parish museum of Żejtun, a key work of Caravaggism in Malta, and a meeting point of the followers of the master at that time on the island. Probably the work was left unfinished by Caravaggio, after he escaped from the island, and was completed by his followers: Mario Minniti, Bartolomeo Garagona, Giovanni Giulio Cassarino and perhaps Lionello Spada.
On the lower left of the big canvas, on the high plinth of a column, appears a map depicting the arrival of Turkish ships in Marsaxsalokk Bay on July 6, 1614. The invaders sacked the eastern part of the island.
David Stone states that the use of indigo pigments in the map is typical of Garagona’s work. The Maltese painter, a descendant of a family originating from Rhodes, would have been able to obtain the precious pigment from Spanish commercial ships sailing from the New World, using Malta as a transit point during their routes to the east.
The detail was unearthed after the painting’s restoration by the Florentine workshop of SACI, under the supervision of Roberta Lapucci, together with the as yet unidentified coat of arms under it. On the column shaft is an inscription that the painting was donated in 1614 as a votive offering by the knight Philippe de Wignacourt, younger brother of the Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt, for the old parish church dedicated to St Catherine, which according to legend would intervene against the Muslim invaders.
The inscription reads: «divae catherinae virgin et martyr, invictissimae fr’ Philippus. Co.vy campi illmi fris Alofii VVi ncvurt ord, S.Ioan Scierol, magni magistri, equitat praectus pracsentissima eius opem – intur viay- impressione expertus a di <…>. 6 . ivliv 1614 <…> D» (Divine Catherine, virgin and martyr unbeatable, Filippo, brother and fellow-soldier of the illustrious Alof de Wignacourt, Grand Master of the Order of Saint John of Jerusalem and prefect of the cavalry, energetically with his experience during the siege day on July 6, 1614 AD).
From the beginning, the Knights of St John distinguished themselves with their courage. Their contribution was valuable in stemming first the Arabic offensive and later the Ottoman rush against the Christian fortress of Europe.
The knights, trained for war and peerless in audacity, became protagonists of heroic deeds, often numerically inferior against massive armies. Their bravery was recognised by the Holy See and the Spanish Empire, which, after their expulsion from Rhodes, granted Malta to the Order. Various distinguished painters have narrated the knights exploits and their glory lives through the ages.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us