When President George Abela, at the head of a Maltese delegation, visited Montenegro last week, he was taken to see a particular icon, dubbed ‘the Icon Filermosa’ in a DOI caption, which was shown to the Maltese delegation in the Montenegrin Government House Building.
By this simple gesture, President Abela was renewing a centuries-old link with Malta that had been broken in 1798.
This icon has a long and chequered history, for it is the same icon that was venerated in St John’s in Valletta. The Knights venerated an ancient icon of Our Lady that had originally been brought from Jerusalem to the shrine on Mount Phileremos on Rhodes (hence its name). An exact copy is now one of the treasures of the Basilica of St Mary of the Angels at Assisi.
The Madonna on Mount Phileremos, a Byzantine icon (Tempera on wood, 44 x 36 cm), may have been on Rhodes before the Hospitallers arrived in 1306, and by 1396 at the latest it was an object of popular devotion that worked miracles and was revered by both Latins and Greeks.
A magistral bull of 1497 held that it had reached Rhodes miraculously on the waves in the time of an Emperor Leo described as the ‘Heresiarch’, which presumably meant Leo III, who had attacked icons in the eighth century. It was mentioned by many travellers and was taken to the city and venerated during the great sieges and at other times of danger. The Rhodians, who venerated it under the title of ‘Qeovtoko Filevremou’ (‘The Mother of God of Phileremos’) piously believed that it was painted by St Luke and brought to Rhodes from Jerusalem in about 1000AD. Its fame as a wonder-working image was known all over the Aegean.
Accounts by 15th-century travellers mention the citadel on Mount Phileremos and the icon with its sanctuary and adjoining monastery on which the Knights lavished their munificence.
Two new chapels were added to the sanctuary by Grand Master Pierre d’Aubusson after the siege of 1480 which, according to the eyewitness account of Guillaume Caoursin, had been settled in favour of the Knights by the intercession of the Virgin and St John the Baptist.
During the siege, the icon had been moved inside the walls of the city for safety and the same precaution was taken in 1513, when there was a threat of invasion, and in the siege of 1522. On this latter occasion it was placed in the church of St Mark.
After the loss of Rhodes, the icon accompanied the Knights on their seven-year exile and between 1524 and 1527 was venerated in the collegiate church of SS Faustino and Giovita at Viterbo.
In Malta it was placed in the church of St Lawrence in Birgu, where it escaped damage when the church was destroyed by fire in 1532. After the building of Valletta, it was transferred first to the church of Our Lady of Victories and subsequently to the Conventual Church of St John, when a chapel had been prepared to receive it.
At St John’s, work has just been completed on the full-blown restoration of the Chapel of the Madonna of Phileremos, the icon that can certainly be called the Black Madonna of Malta.
This chapel, also known as the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, now holds the silver-clad icon of the Carafa Madonna, which is carried in procession every year on 8 December.
But the Carafa Madonna is, so to speak, a substitute. Its original collocation is the tondo on top of Mattia Preti’s altarpiece of the Coronation of Saint Catherine in the Chapel of the Italian Langue.
It was only after the Madonna of Phileremos was taken away that the Carafa Madonna was taken down from the tondo and replaced by the Madonna logo.
The Order of St John considered two sacred images as its most holy relics – the Hand of St John, a gift from the Turkish Sultan to the Grand Master at the fall of Jerusalem, and the Madonna of Phileremos.
This blackish icon was considered by the Knights to be miraculous and they took special care to protect it and took it with them, along with the Hand, when they were forced out of Rhodes.
When, after the Great Siege, the Knights planned Valletta and its Conventual Church, none of the chapels was assigned (the assignment to the langues would come in the next century) but the icon was assigned a chapel next to the High Altar. While St John’s was still being completed, in 1576, there is evidence that the icon was already in the chapel and indulgences could be earned for visiting it.
This was the chapel considered by the Knights as the most holy. They prayed to the icon, especially before going out on the Corso (battle). When victorious, the returning Knights would present the keys of the captured fortresses to the Virgin. Even today, one can see the keys of the castles of Lepanto and Patras hanging near the altar.
The icon was venerated behind a crystal panel and it had four silver ‘robes’ set with pearls and other precious stones.
After the Napoleonic conquest of Malta in 1798, it was one of the few treasures that Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch was permitted to take off the island.
On 12 October 1799, after the resignation of Hompesch, it was presented, together with the relics of the Hand of the Baptist and a splinter of the True Cross, to Tsar Paul I who had, meanwhile, been elected Grand Master of the Order by a few rebel Knights. Although the election was totally irregular, it was accepted in the hope that Paul’s influence might regain Malta for the Knights. The presentation was made by the Order’s representative, the Count de Litta, in the imperial residence of Gatchina about 40 kilometres outside St Petersburg.
After Paul’s death in 1801, the icon, covered with a gold riza set with precious stones, was transferred to the Winter Palace at St Petersburg. It survived the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 because, when the palace was stormed, it was in a church at Gatchina, together with the other relies of the Knights, for a celebration in their honour on 12 October.
In 1920, after various vicissitudes, the icon and the relics somehow found themselves in the luggage of the dowager empress Maria Feodorowna, who had sought asylum in her native Denmark.
Before she died in 1928, the empress entrusted them to her daughters, the Grand duchesses Xenia Alessandrowna and Olga Alessandrowna, who passed them to the President of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Bishops in Exile, Archbishop Antoniye of Kieff and Galizia.
They were taken to the newly built Russian church in Berlin, but in 1929 they were transferred to Belgrade where, in April 1932, they were officially consigned to the custody of Alexander I of Yugoslavia. They were kept in the chapel of the royal palace at Dedinje until 1941 when, owing to the threat of a Nazi invasion, they were apparently sent to the Orthodox Monastery of Ostrog, near Niksic, in Montenegro.
In 1997 it was announced in Rome by the then Grand Chancellor of the Sovereign Military Order of Malta, Prince Carlo Marullo, that the long-lost icon had been found in an Orthodox monastery in former Yugoslavia.
Writing in Il Tempo, Guglielmo de Giovanni Centelles said that the icon had been lost in a bombing raid in 1941 and was being restored in a Marian monastery in Montenegro, famed for its specialised restoration work on icons.
When completely restored in the autumn, the newspaper report continued, the icon was to be transferred to the Magistral Palace of the Order in Rome’s Via Condotti. Then, according to the writer, Grand Master Frà Andrew Bertie would then decide on its final destination, which could be Fort St Angelo.
Since then, nothing seems to have been done to bring the icon back to Malta, nor does any such request seem to have been made during the discussions between the Maltese and the Montenegrin side last week.
The President of Montenegro has been invited to visit Malta next year.