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Living And Dying In The Service Of Others


Malta, often described as a rock in the middle of the Mediterranean, is, in fact, three rocks since it comprises three islands: Malta, Gozo and Comino.

Malta & Its Capital Valetta

From the air the islands appear but insignificant specks in the sea, however, their storied past reaches back 5000 years. Neolithic newcomers rafted over from Sicily and left a legacy older than the pyramids. Their circular temples of huge stones contain spiral designs symbolic of life cycles and reincarnation.

Prehistoric Temple

Hagar Qim - Ruins of Prehistoric Temples

Of all the conquerors to come to Malta, the most famous were the Knights of St. John who arrived early in the 16th century.

A Knight of the Order of St.John

In 1048, the merchants of Amalfi, Italy, who were permanent residents of the Holy Lands, obtained Moslem permission to build a hospital at Jerusalem for poor, ailing pilgrims. The history of the Knights of St. John, whose patron saint was John The Baptist, began about 1120 in the Holy Land when the staff of this institution was organized by Raymond du Puy as a religious order.

During the Crusades, these 'Hospitalers' gave care and comfort to sick and wounded. The organization grew in importance after the Crusaders captured the city and the number of pilgrims increased considerably. The Order gained strength and took on the character of a military body under the control and authority of the Church.

The Hospitalers in order to protect the pilgrims had to fight the infidels and when this gradually became of greater importance than healing, it resulted in the Order's members becoming also Soldiers of Christ. The "Knights" themselves who had military duties never exceeded six hundred in number and had to be of noble birth from both parents and bound by the monastic vows of Charity, Obedience and Poverty. The "Chaplains," who were priests and performed religious duties, and the "Serving Brothers," who assisted the knights and served as nurses, did not have to be of noble birth. The members organized on the basis of nationality or Langues (Tongues) which in order of precedence were; Provence; Auverne; France; Spain; Italy; Great Britain; Germany and Castile/Portugal.

Coats-of-arms of the various Langues

Crests of Knights
photo by

The Knights were part the military forces of Guy de Lusignan, King of Jerusalem, who made a supreme effort to defeat Saladin but was defeated. While Saladin treated Guy and other lay prisoners with courtesy and kindness, he slaughtered every Templar and Hospitaler who fell into his hands.

A Fully-Armed Knight at Prayer
[Relief Tombstone]

The Knights became one of the noblest charitable groups in the Christian world. Grateful lords and princes who were healed in their hospitals made generous grants to the Order and they acquired extensive and valuable properties to support their activiities in the Holy Land. They became one of the chief mainstays of the Latin kingdom.

In the 12th and 13th centuries, the chief instruments of foreign exchange were the two great miltiary orders, the Templars and the Hospitalers. They held large properties in every part of Western Europe and the fact that they combined religious sanctity with miltiary power made everything in their possession particularly safe. They accepted money in one country and paid it out in another.

The Templars or the Poor Knights of the Temple of Solomon as they were known when they were founded on the site of Solomon's temple by Godfroi du Bullion in 1118. At one time this distinquished organization, had by the beginning of the 14th century become little more than an enormous banking organization which even ran the royal treasury of France. The Templars had immense resources and power which placed them outside any regular channels of allegiance. They were not known for charitable works and unlike the Knights of St. John, they supported no hospitals. All this made them fair game for Phillipe the Bright (IV) of France.

Phillipe had borrowed a good deal of cash from their coffers and could not repay it. In addition his application to join the organization had been turned down. Enraged by this rejection, he eagerly decided to discharge his debt by eliminating his debtor.

Philip the Fair
[Born 1268]
[Ascension 1285]
[Death 1314]
[ Queen: Joan of Navarre:
born: 1273
married: 1284
died: 1305]

In 1307 Philip seized the Temple in Paris and on the same night, he ordered the arrest of every Templar in France. They were accused of every crime the medieval mind could imagine. These ranged from sexual deviation,to commerce with the devil, treason and theft and concealment of the Holy Grail. Trials were a must for no one was to be sentenced without proof of guilt. Pope Clement V was also perpetually short of cash and he was persuaded by Philip to authorize the trials of the white-mantled monks.

No evidence was needed for proof. Confession was enough and it was readily obtained by torture.The Templars, many of them old men, were racked, thumbscrewed, starved, hung with weights until joints were dislocated, had teeth and finger nails extracted one by one, bones broken by wedges and feet held over flames. A pause followed each pain for the admission of guilt. Either way they were damned, for confession meant the fire. One chronicler acknowledged they "would have confessed they had slain God if they were asked that." They were systematically hunted down and exterminated until in 1314, the last Grand Master, Jacques de Molnay was garroteed and burned at the stake, taking with him the secrets of that secret society.

According to the Vatican archives website, the long-neglected parchment showed that Clement initially absolved the Templar leaders of heresy, though he did find them guilty of immorality and he planned to reform the order. However, pressured by Philip and his own lust for loot, Clement reversed his decision and suppressed the order in 1312.

The Vatican has published secret documents about the trial of the Knights Templar.
The 300-page volume,
"Processus Contra Templarios"
(Latin for "Trial against the Templars"),
recently came out in a limited edition.
799 copies each priced at US$8,377.

In 1291 Acre the last Christian stronghold in the Holy Land was lost when the Egyptian army routed the Christian forces. The Knights who survived sailed to Cyprus to regroup their forces. In 1309 they captured Rhodes after cvercoming the inhabitants' heroic resistance. Here they established a fleet, became a great naval force and a vigorous and belligerent outpost of western Christendom. Their years at Rhodes were the most brilliant of their history.

Rhodes, The Island In The Sun
[15th century drawing]

Symbol of Rhodes on Road Grate
photo by
G. Wilson

In 1565, the Ottomans sent the largest fleet ever assembled to lay siege to the island of Malta, the conquest of which would give them control of the whole of the Mediterranean. The Knights of St. John prepared to meet this assault as best they could. Somehow, despite their smaller army and the failure of aid to reach them, they held out over several months of terrifying attacks in a dramatic display of courage, grit, and great leadership.

Legacies Left by the Knights of Rhodes

Knights' Church, Rhodes
photo by

Castellania in Old Town of Rhodes
photo by
G. Wilson

When in 1530 these sons of European royalty were offered the Maltese Islands by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to hold in feudal tenure, they changed their name to Knights of Malta. The sole fee for Malata was a falcon to be delivered to the Emperor each All Saints Day. The Order accepted the Emperor's gift and remained on Malta for over 250 years. From here the Knights of Malta carried on a war against the Barbary Corsairs.

This bizarre bargain inspired Dashiell Hammett's novel and the classic movie of the same name, The Maltese Falcon.

The Maltese Falcon
as it appeared on the first edition of D. Hammett's novel.

Capital City of Malta

Monument to Grand Master
Jean de La Vallette Parisot

In 1565 Malta was one of the last obstacles lying between the Ottoman Empire and its intended conquest of Europe. A mighty struggle loomed in the Mediterranean between the Christian kingdoms, roiled by religious strife and political intrigue, and the surging Ottoman Empire. Hoping to make Malta Moslem, the Turks sent a fleet of 150 ships and 40,000 soldiers to seize the strategic islands with a massive siege. All that stood in the sultan's way was a tiny island and its small band of 9000 defenders - the Knights of Malta. This 16th-century religious war entailed all the treachery and zealotry of Muslim and Christian authorities alike.

Fighting with their accustomed bravery, the Knights of Malta resisted this great siege and its savagery and four months later forced the bitterly defeated invaders to return to Constantinople with only a quarter of their army intact. Western Europe rang with the praises of the Knights. Two hundred years later, Voltaire was still calling it the most famous event in history, yet today the story is seldom told.

Immediately after the Great Siege of 1565, the urgency to build an effective defence system became a priority for the Order. This resulted in the foundation of Valletta being conceived as a town within a fortress. Money flowed into Maltal from every kingdom and the flow of finances was used to build forts and reinforcements for the anticipated renewed assaults which never came. For 233 years the Order dominated the Mediterranean. Today the island's fortifications stand as a great reminder of the epic efforts made to keep Malta free from enemy aggressions.

Bastions Span the Length of the Valletta Peninsula
by G.Wilson

Fort St. Elmo played a significant part in the great siege of 1565. On June 23, 1565 the 600 or so defenders of the Fort fought and fell to the last man when overcome by the Turkish hordes following the month-long siege. The Fort was centre stage at another battle during WWII. Maltese defenders fought and repulsed an Italian E-Boat assault on the Grand Harbour when manned torpedo boats broke through the netted entrance [see arrow] only to be destroyed by fire from the batteries on shore.

Fort St. Elmo
Photo by G. Wilson

Fort St. Elmo is today the site of full scale military parades in period costume called 'In Guardia.'

"In Guardia"
Photo by B. Wilson

Photos by G. Wilson

St. John Cavalier (fortress)
Photos by G. Wilson

Plaques of 8 of the Knight Houses in St. John Cavalier
Photo by G. Wilson

Flags of 8 of the Knight Houses in St. John Cavalier
Photo by G. Wilson

Left - Armour of Grand Commander Jean Jacques de Verdelain 1590-1673
Centre - Armour of Grand Master Wignacourt 1601-1622
Photo by G. Wilson

Under the leadershp of Grand Masters, the Knights constructed great churches, imposing auberges and massive stone fortifications on every strategic site. In the centre of Valletta, the capital of Malta, they constructed their Valhalla, the Cathedral of St. John, inside which lies the chivalry of Europe. While plain and austere on the outside,

St. John Cathedral

St. John Cathedral in Valletta
Photo G. Wilson

The cathedral is breathtakingly beautiful inside with an awe-inspiring vaulted ceiling on which are depicted scenes from the life of John the Baptist two of which follow.

'God the Father'
in the Main Vault
by Mattia Preti (1613-1699)

John Reproving Herod for his Immoraltiy
Vault painting by Mattia Preti (1613-1699)

Blessed Sacrement Chapel with Silver Gates

There are numerous fine works of art in this cathedral and one of the most famous is Caravaggio's, The Beheading of St. John. Caravaggio, a realist painter was born Michelangelo Merisi in the village of Caravaggio in Lombardy in 1573. He was known to his contemporaries as a pientre maudit, painter with a cloven hoof, apparently because he had a fierce temper. His tempestuous nature is reflected in his paintings. He is famous for intensely dramatic works that depict: violent struggles, torture and death. He rebelled against rules. His style 'abolished' the background, used a restricted palette and powerful contrasts in light and shadow, laid on with a fury that portrays his passion.

The stormy, shocking private life of this notorious brawler included a murder during a quarrel over a gambling debt. He fled Rome and was given asylum by the Grand Master of the Sovereign Order in Malta. His escapades continued with police always on his heels for various crimes. Despite his dissolute and dissipated life, he was recognized as a celebrated genius with a painting in the Vatican. This undisciplined artist's whole output concerned representations of the human form. His religious paintings caused scandals because he used for his sacred personages, models from the lower classes - his compatriots. Caravaggio's St. Matthew, commissioned by a church in Rome, depicts the saint surrounded by card players in a tavern. In 1610, he died of a fever on a beach in Sicily at the age of 37.

According to a recent U of T article, the 'Dark Master' has replaced Michelangelo as the darling of the academic art world. The rebellious genius, Michelangelo, knocked Michelangelo from his perch atop the Italian art charts in the 1980s. The article explains that this giant genius, who painted for the pope and rejected nature, has simply fallen out of favour and been replaced by the man who embraced humanity in all its facets including the degraded ones. "He rebelled against dogma and received wisdom."

Surely, there is room in the academic art world for two Michelangelos.

Caravaggio's Self Portrait

Caravaggio's Beheading of St. John

Caravaggio's David holding the head of Goliath

Caravaggio's Portrait of the Grand Master of the Knights of Malta

Caravaggio's Portrait of St. Jerome

Caravaggio's Judith Beheading Holofernes

Caravaggio's Crucifiction of St. Peter

Most impressive is the fantastic marble floor patterned with 375 tombstones, the oldest dating from the first years of the 17th century. Each inlaid, coloured, marble slab bears the crest, coat-of-arms and epitaph of a noble knight. Only the top dignitaries of the Order and a few outstanding individuals were allowed to perpetuate their memory in this way. The inscriptions are mostly written in a form of Latin and they pronounce the merits of the person entombed below. The marble inlay tombstones were made by local craftsmen.

D O M,
Deo Optimo Maximo,
'To God the Best and The Greatest.'

Tombstone Slabs
St.John Cathedral
Valletta, Malta

The tombstone of Wolffgangus Philippus of Guttenburg
"Fumus, Humus, Sumus et Cinis Est Nostra Ultima Finis."
'We are like smoke and dust and our end is ash.'

On 19 May, 1798, General Napoleon Bonaparte sailed from Italy with an army of almost 40,000 men, along with another smaller army of scientists, engineers, artists and linguists - the so-called "Savants" to capture Egypt. The first stop, however, was Malta. There Napoleon ousted the Knights of St. John, established Malta as a French satellite and loooted millions in gold, silver and gems from the nation's treasury. Bonaparte in turn was tossed out two years later by the British, who retained possession of the islands for over a century and a half. During World War II Malta bore the brunt of more bombing than any other place on earth. For the courage and constancy of its citizens, the Nation was awarded the George Cross, the only country so honoured. In 1964 the British left and Malta, free at last of all foreigners, became a republic in 1974.

Thus ended the military activities of the Order of St. John and the Knights of St. John devoted their energies soley to works of charity. In 1870 during the Franco-Prussian War, several members of the newly-revived Order of St. John in England offered their services for ambulance work in the field. Their valuable work indicated the crying need for lay persons trained in the care of the sick and injured to be involved. As a result the Order of England formed the St. John's Ambulance Association in 1877 to teach first aid, home nursing and related subjects.

The humanitarian work of the British branch of St. John Ambulance spread to Canada during the winter of 1882-83 when first aid classes were organized in Quebec City and later in Kingston, Ontario. By 1892 there were 12 branches of St. John Ambulance in Canada from Halifax to Vancouver. The cross of St.John and the Maple Leaf have joined to bring life-saving services to Canada.

The cross of St. John joins the Maple Leaf


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