The Malta Independent 18 June 2019, Tuesday

The unknown martyrs of the Great Siege

Noel Grima Tuesday, 18 September 2018, 08:51 Last update: about 10 months ago

Mattia Preti: Saints and heroes for the Knights of Malta by Cynthia De Giorgio. Midsea Books / 2014. Extent: 144pp

We have just honoured the Great Siege, as we do every year, with a public holiday. Many of us have a vague idea how the siege developed, from May to September 1565 but few of us understand the real historical importance of the siege and what it meant for Europe.

But apart from Grand Master de Valette, and perhaps one or two Maltese patriots,  honoured more in legend than in historical research, but we have no idea of the heroes and martyrs of the siege.


The irony is we have always had their portraits looking down on us from the vault of St John's but we did not know their names nor were their heroic actions ever explained to us.

This book describes the heroism of eight, the first two being Fra Adriano La Riviera and Fra Alessandro Sangiorgio. They are represented on either side of the third bay of the nave of St John's accompanying the larger scene relating Christ's baptism on the vault.

La Riviera was taken prisoner at the Santa Margherita bastion by the Turks but he apparently misled them with the information he gave them under torture. He was caught out, tortured and killed. His body was then maltreated by a huge sign of the cross cut into his torso (this is clear in the painting) as a blatant mockery of his faith and as a warning to all.

Sangiorgio came from an illustrious family from Piedmont and was killed in the final assault on St Elmo on 23 June. His body and those of other martyrs were recovered the next day, feast of the birth of St John, horribly mutilated and almost unidentifiable, when they washed ashore on the shore of Fort St Angelo (in fact, he was identified by his brother) and were then given a solemn funeral. In the painting, he is represented holding up an outer layer of skin, representing his being flayed by the Turks.

Two others were Fra Pierre de Masseus who was wounded in the battle for St Elmo and died there. His body was mutilated along with the others in the orgy of violence after the fall of the fort. And Fra Alain de Montal, who was one of the leaders in the fight to recuperate the Santa Margherita area and despite receiving a blow to an eye, captured an enemy flag which was later hung in the Church of St Lawrence. Alain de Montal was later killed at Fort St Michael.

Then there are Fra Melchior de Monserrat who wanted to be appointed Governor of Fort St Elmo when the fort was about to fall, killed by a musket shot when he was attempting to reposition a cannon; Fra Juan D'Eguaras who showed great courage in the siege of St Elmo, was gravely wounded in the leg but refused an offer to be taken back to the Borgo to be healed and continued to fight even as the Turks entered the fort. He ran to the adversaries with a halberd in his hand and had his head cut off by a scimitar; Fra Ambrogio Pegullo who lost his life while fighting in the siege and Fra Aleramo Parpaglia who was killed in an attack in which he pushed himself too far.

The book is a wonderful tour de force of Mattia Preti's paintings not just in Malta but also in Italy. But the second part of the book is an anthology of his paintings of saints and heroes not just from St John's but also from other churches around Malta.

It is not clear who decided which saints and heroes went into the spaces underneath the vault painting. In September 1661, Grand Master Raphael Cotoner informed the Council of the Order that Mattia Preti had offered to paint the entire vault of the Conventual Church at his own expense. Preti divided the vault into six bays and he divided each bay into three sections so that we have eighteen episodes from the life of St John.

Along with the vault paintings, saints and heroes of the Order were painted on either side of the vault, sitting on either side of the windows. Twenty-six saints and heroes were painted: the first two bays belong to the 13th and 14th Centuries while the third to the sixth bay represent heroes of the 16th century.

In the narrow bay next to the main door Preti painted the Blessed Gerard and the Blessed Raymond du Puy, considered to be the founders of the Order. The Order had its women saints too - St Ubaldesca who joined the Order at a very young age, St Flora who came from Cahors in France, Donna Sancha the Queen of Aragon, and Santa Toscana, born near Verona and considered as an example for married women.

Other paintings in the series under the vault include more blesseds and saints - St Nicasius (beheaded in front of Sultan Saladin for refusing to convert to the Muslim faith), the Blessed Gerland of Germany, Blessed Don Garcia Martinez of Portuguese nationality who led a saintly life, Blessed Peter of Imola from a Ghibelline family, and then heroes of the Order - Fra Leone Strozzi, coming from an important Florentine family and a nephew of a pope and courageous admiral/pirate, Fra Vespiano Malaspina, one of the last knights to die as a martyr during the Great Siege ( a rather funny death - he went out on a balcony to plant a palm tree but was killed by a shot to the head).

One surprise is a British knight, Blessed Adrian Fortescue, a cousin of Anne Boleyn who refused to abandon the Catholic faith, was caught in England and martyred when he opposed Henry VIII's religious policies.

The last major commission of Preti's career was the redecoration of the Oratory of the Decollation of the Baptist where the young novices were instructed in the faith and virtues of the Order in the sight of Caravaggio's great painting of the Beheading of St John. Preti painted three canvasses on the soffit depicting scenes from the passion of Christ while he also painted ten lateral paintings depicting the saints and the blessed and the founders of the Order. It is quite interesting to compare these paintings with the paintings of the same people in the vault of the church. The ones in the vault are painted on a golden background and make direct eye contact with the viewer while the oratory paintings are unaware of the spectator and engaged in silent meditation. One realizes these are representative of Preti's meditative mood in the final and mature phase of his life, forced to leave Valletta and seek refuge in Zurrieq by the plague and contemplating his coming death.

The book does not include photos of all of Preti's paintings but it includes a fair amount of them, including paintings he painted outside Malta, for his birthplace Taverna, for the church of San Andrea della Valle in Rome, the church of San Biagio in Modena and for the plague ex-voto frescoes for Naples' city gates and ten large ceiling canvases for the church of San Pietro a Maiella in Naples.

It was, as we all know, while he was in Naples that he was invited to paint a painting of St Francis Xavier for Grand Master de Redin who wanted to decorate the Chapel of Aragon in St John's. Following on the success of this first painting, he was later asked to paint St Firmin and the St George and the Dragon altarpiece for the same chapel.

The book comes not just with good photos of sometimes inaccessible paintings but also with comments on the style and context of most paintings.

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