As Malta welcomes back Jean Parisot de Valette's dagger after more than 200 years, Sarah Carabott looks at the historical and cultural background of the artefact.

The Grand Master's dagger has returned to Malta – if only temporarily – after more than 200 years, and it is being exhibited in the city named after its previous owner.

Sword and dagger to scale with one another.Sword and dagger to scale with one another.

The poniard, together with a sword and accompanying girdle, had been gifted to the Grand Master in 1566 by King Philip II of Spain. It was a personal gift presented to Jean Parisot de Valette in recognition of his military valour and leadership during the 1565 siege.

De Valette immediately decreed that the same ceremonial sword and poniard be carried un-sheathed during the annual solemn procession of September 8, the Feast of the Nativity of the Virgin.

Several aspects of this same procession have been passed on from one generation to another over four-and-a-half centuries, and form a crucial part of today’s village festas.

These include the­­­­­­­­­­­­ carrying of a holy image during the procession and fireworks – which replaced the triumphant firing of cannons and muskets of those times.

An angel holding the sword and dagger of Jean de Valette – oil painting on lime preparation, Alessio Erardi (1669–1727), Our Lady of Victories Church vault, Valletta.An angel holding the sword and dagger of Jean de Valette – oil painting on lime preparation, Alessio Erardi (1669–1727), Our Lady of Victories Church vault, Valletta.

After the death of de Valette, his original decree was respected to the last word.

Until September of 1797, the sword and poniard were carried by the noblest of pages, who walked along the left side of the reigning Grand Master.

History tells us that both sword and dagger eventually ended up in Napoleon Bonaparte's hands, who sent the former to Paris, but kept the poniard for himself.

He adorned it with a decorated sheath and it is believed that he bequeathed it to his son, also called Napoleon, before it was passed on to King Louis Philippe. In 1852, the dagger was exhibited at the Louvre, where it joined the sword.

Brought over following an agreement between Heritage Malta and the Paris's Louvre Museum, the poniard will be on display at the Museum of Archaeology in Valletta between tomorrow and July 9.

The two entities have been holding discussions over the past four years, with the intention always being that of bringing it over during the Maltese Presidency of the European Council.

Since the sword could not be brought over because of its fragility, Heritage Malta created a rotating 3D projection of the sword that is to scale.

One of the items on display is the narrative of the surrender of Napoleon Bonaparte on board HMS Bellerophon, Heritage Malta – Malta Maritime Museum, Vittoriosa. Admiral Viscount Lord Keith instructed the captain to confiscate all arms from the Frenchmen, including Napoleon. However, the latter was allowed to continue wearing his sword. In naval terminology, the term sword could refer to a short sword or dagger, similar to a naval dirk.One of the items on display is the narrative of the surrender of Napoleon Bonaparte on board HMS Bellerophon, Heritage Malta – Malta Maritime Museum, Vittoriosa. Admiral Viscount Lord Keith instructed the captain to confiscate all arms from the Frenchmen, including Napoleon. However, the latter was allowed to continue wearing his sword. In naval terminology, the term sword could refer to a short sword or dagger, similar to a naval dirk.

Who owned the sword and dagger? Can Malta claim them back?

■ The sword and dagger were never Malta’s property, but rather the personal possession of Grand Master de Valette. These became property of the Order of St John following his death in 1568 and were eventually taken over by the French in 1798. The Order is still in existence.

Were the sword and dagger ever reclaimed?

■ The 1815 Treaty of Vienna decreed that all items looted by the French during the Napoleonic Wars were to be returned. The Order of St John was, however, in disarray and did not even have a Grand Master at the time. No claim seems to have ever been made by the Order.

Why is de Valette’s sword not on display with the dagger?

■ The sword could not be displayed with the dagger because of complex conservation issues. A 19th century intervention, which replaced its blade with a new one, rendered the sword’s gems unstable. Moving the sword could further damage it.

The 1530 Deed of Donation signed by Charles V, National Library of Malta. Malta was practically ‘leased’ to the Order, being a tiny fragment of Charles V’s possessions, which included more than half of Europe and the Americas.The 1530 Deed of Donation signed by Charles V, National Library of Malta. Malta was practically ‘leased’ to the Order, being a tiny fragment of Charles V’s possessions, which included more than half of Europe and the Americas.

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