The 439 years before the arrival of the Knights of the Order of St John were a period of transition for the Maltese Islands. This time saw Malta go from a Muslim island, conquered in 870, gradually changing into a bulwark of Latin Christianity and, in the meantime, being ruled by several powers: the Normans, Swabians, Genoese Counts, Angevins and the Aragonese, all of whom left their impact on the islands and on Malta’s art and architecture.

This rather long period in Malta’s history is often overlooked and hence, few are able to appreciate the rich legacy that was fast evolving.

A newly published book by Charlene Vella, assistant lecturer in the Department of History of Art at the University of Malta and an art critic for The Sunday Times of Malta, takes a fresh look at this period. In The Mediterranean Artistic Context of Late Medieval Malta: 1091-1530, Vella, who is specialised in medieval and renaissance art and architecture, successfully manages to deliver several examples of how the Maltese islands were often no cultural backwater and that sophisticated artistic patronage had been, in fact, achieved. Indeed, contrary to popular belief, the renaissance style reached Malta before the arrival of the Knights. This book also takes into consideration the broader artistic and historical context of other central Mediterranean countries.

The Mediterranean Artistic Context of Late Medieval Malta: 1091-1530 is the result of four years of research carried out locally and abroad. During her research, Vella managed to have a Renaissance painting that had been entirely repainted in the 17th century, studied and restored with the support of the University of Malta Research Programme. Another surprise was the rediscovery of a medieval white marble capital in the reserve collection of the Museum of Archaeology, Valletta, thought to be lost or misplaced. An image of this capital was used on the front cover of the book.

Speaking about this new publication, Donal Cooper, lecturer in Renaissance Art and Fellow of Jesus College at the University of Cambridge states: “To the outside observer or casual visitor, Malta’s heritage is dominated by the stupendous architectural and artistic achievements associated with the Knights of St John.

“Interspersed amid the islands’ baroque glories, however, the more attentive viewer will soon notice subtler traces of older and more complex traditions that reach back through the Renaissance and deep into the Middle Ages. Their story, rarely told, is now accessible to both a specialist and general readership thanks to this ground-breaking book.”

Dr Cooper adds that along the way, Vella sheds a great deal of new light on Malta’s cultural formation in the early medieval period.

She also overturns the easy assumption that the Knights inherited a tabula rasa when they arrived in Malta in 1530.

The Mediterranean Artistic Context of Late Medieval Malta: 1091-1530, which is printed by Midsea Books and costs €55, is available from leading bookshops.