St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta and its adjoining museum are considered a veritable treasure trove of artistic objects, which include, among others, works by world-renowned artists such as Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio (1571-1610) , Mattia Preti (1613-99) and Giuseppe Mazzuoli (1646-1725). The Flemish tapestries on permanent display at the museum are among the items considered priceless works of art. They arrived in Malta in February 1702, probably the 7th, and are therefore the subject of this month’s monthly anniversary story.
“Motivated by a strong sense of duty as well as devotion, Grand Master Fra Ramon Perellós y Roccaful paid from his own pocket for the tapestries and arras that were masterfully made in Belgium to embellish the Major Conventual Church of the Gerosolimitan Order of Malta dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. Thus reads an entry in a volume of the Archives of the Order of Saint John held at the National Library of Malta, and which is, perhaps, the only recorded reference to the origin of the tapestries. These, incidentally, were also the subject of four commemorative postage stamp issues between 1977 and 1980, which included a representation of the donor himself, born in 1637, who reigned over the Order and the Maltese Islands from 1697 until his death in 1720.
It has been traditionally believed that Perellós had thought of donating a set of tapestries to St John’s years earlier. He had discussed the project on several occasions with the painter Mattia Preti, and it is also said that Preti traveled to Belgium at the request and expense of Perellós to meet with Flemish tapestry makers.
But why Flemish tapestries? Because Flemish art was then at its zenith in Europe. Royal courts and aristocratic castles all included impressive wall hangings, and many nobles secured the services of the finest craftsmen to be found in Paris or Brussels. Ramon Perellós did not escape this “new craze” and, like many contemporaries, believed that the best way to transmit new ideas was through this new art.
Ramon Perellós believed that the best way to convey ideas was through this new art
Like Jean-Baptiste Colbert (1619-1683), the great minister of the French monarch Louis XIV (the Sun King), Perellós maintained that “the health of a society is manifested in the state of its art”. He believed it was more profitable to spend money on the arts than on ships (although Perellós instituted the Order’s squadron of ships of the line) and he thought it would help revive the declining prestige of the order. It is a fact that the magnificent set of 29 Flemish tapestries, later completed by another different set for the Magistral Palace, captured the imagination of European monarchs and helped to keep Malta on the social and political map of Europe. Europe.
Each new holder of the magistracy had to make an expensive donation to the convent church, known as the gioia. This set of tapestries was by Perellós gioia to his Order and to his conventual or main church. Woven in Brussels by Judecos de Vos, each piece bears the words “Judecos de Vos” or “JDS”, as well as the hallmarks of Brussels and the coat of arms of Grand Master Perellós, as if to leave no doubt about the identity of the donor. has been.
The set cost Perellós no less than 40,000 Roman crowns and took nearly four years to complete after being commissioned in 1698. The work could only be completed in a relatively short time because the organization De Vos employed hundreds of outside workers. who wove small sections which were then assembled and sewn into complete scenes.
The conventual chaplain Rev. Jean-Baptiste Brix was responsible for transporting the tapestries from Belgium. When they arrived in Malta in February 1702, there was general rejoicing and Brix was publicly thanked and rewarded with a jeweled cross.
Obviously, the choice of themes for the conventual church of the Order was religious. After all, one of the main reasons for the real existence of the Order was none other than the defense of the Catholic Church. So what better subjects than ideas relating to the triumph of the Church of which Perellós was not only a member, but the true head of one of its religious orders?
Mattia Preti was the mastermind behind the interior design of St John’s, and being a knight himself he could only agree. For Preti, only the Baroque idiom could complete the grandeur of the Order, and it was this master painter who most likely offered the advice to order the new tapestries from the De Vos workshops in Brussels.
It should be borne in mind here that Peter Paul Rubens (1577-1640) dominated Flemish art at the time. His style, inspiring and well suited to the decoration of the church, helped Preti decide on the necessary caricatures. One of the works of French artist Nicholas Poussin (1594-1665) was also used, while the figure of Perellós was probably the work of Preti himself who, however, did not live to see the finished product arrive in Malta. Rubens and Poussin had died a few years earlier.
In total, the set is divided into 12 large tapestries each measuring 6.1 square meters and 14 other smaller pieces each measuring 1.83 meters by 6.7 meters. Three other pieces are roughly the size of two smaller tapestries. The large works hung above the arches leading to the side chapels of the tongues, while 12 of the smaller ones covered the intermediate pilasters. The remaining five pieces adorned the area above the main door of the church. Thus, the tapestries entirely covered the upper part of three sides of the nave of St John’s.
Each tapestry has an elaborate border, typically Baroque, which blends in with the interior decoration of St John’s. Five of the largest tapestries depict scenes from the life of Jesus Christ while the other five are allegories.
Each piece had its particular placement as follows:
• on the right, when the viewer looks at the high altar, and starting from the choir: Time; St. Paul; The triumph of the Catholic Church; The Blessed Virgin Mary; The institution of the feast of Corpus Christi; Saint James the Greater; The crucifixion; St. Thomas; Entry into Jerusalem; Saint Philip; The Nativity; Saint Matthew.
• on the left side: The destruction of idolatry; Saint Pierre; The triumph of faith; jesus christ; Christian charity; St. Andrew; The resurrection; St-Jean; The last supper; Saint James the Minor; The Adoration of the Magi; Saint Barthélemy.
• above the entrance door: the central panel represents Perellós himself between the two allegories of Charity and Victory over the Muslims; it is flanked by representations The Four Evangelists, Saint Simon, St. Jude Thaddeus and The Annunciation.
These Flemish tapestries were fortunately spared when the French took Malta and carried away various treasures in 1798, probably because they were only interested in silver and gold objects, as well as precious stones, likely to be sold or converted into cash. However, neglect and the ravages of time have taken their toll, with consequent damage. In 1878 they underwent a first restoration and were saved from destruction.
The last restoration started to be undertaken recently; in 2008 two tapestries were restored and the St. John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation aimed to restore two items each year. These priceless tapestries are now much better appreciated by all and can be seen, along with other works of art, in the museum of St. John’s Co-Cathedral.
The Flemish tapestries of St John’s are truly a magnificent heritage that conveys two messages to the viewer: spiritual and artistic. Indeed, “the coronation of the church”, as they have been so well described, is certainly “a tapestry sermon” whose “style and vividness of color accord so admirably with the general character of the ornamentation of the church, that the effect of their exposure cannot be easily described”.
Joseph F. Grima is a retired occasional history teacher and assistant director of education.
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