The Malta Independent 30 May 2024, Thursday
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St John’s Tombstones: protecting a unique heritage

Malta Independent Sunday, 17 January 2010, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago


As a collection, it is indeed one of Malta’s most inimitable heirlooms, but over the centuries it has – in this case quite literally – been trodden on and damaged by thousands of feet.

Over the years it must have been seen as a lost battle and the damage continued, as there were no funds to contain or redress the damage. So all the damage done was at best contained by cementing the bits that were dislodged in the hope that the rest would not be damaged as well. A futile hope, as the damage continued.

Only now is the damage being contained and even reversed. It is a demanding job and mostly unappreciated, because most people do not realise the hard work, many times on one’s knees, that goes into repairing one tombstone.

We are talking, obviously, about the marble tombstones in St John’s Co-Cathedral, the unique colourful marble floor, the artistic beauty and rich symbolism of which one rarely gets a chance to see and appreciate, both because of the chairs and also because of the dark, specially made carpets now protecting the aisles from further damage.

There are 378 tombstones in St John’s, curator Cynthia de Giorgio told me. In addition, there are also four small inscriptions or commemorative plaques that commemorate Knights of the Order who did not die in Malta.

Only two are repeated, the relatives of Grand Master Carafa, which also bear a strong resemblance to his funerary monument, which can be seen in the chapel of the Langue of Italy.

The tombstones were not part of the original design of the church. When St John’s was inaugurated in 1577, the church was without the gilding, the carvings, the sculptures, the paintings by Mattia Preti and the tombstones. It was a very simple, bare, church, quite impossible to imagine today.

The Knights that fell during the 1565 Great Siege were originally buried in Fort St Angelo but were later re-interred in the cemetery part of St John’s, which formed part of the church’s precincts right from the beginning.

It must be remembered that in Catholic theology, there is a strong belief in the bodily resurrection of Christians to join the Risen Christ. A literal interpretation of this belief led to the tradition that dead people had to be buried near or even in the church, in order to be physically close to Christ on the Day of Resurrection.

The earliest record of a person being buried in St John’s was around 1606, some 25 years after the church was opened.

The tombstones, dating from the early 17th century to the early 19th century, are a short treatise on the history of art, ranging from the Mannerist period to the early and then high Baroque, and later to the neo-classical period. One can actually trace the evolution of styles.

All these three styles are present in the tombstones.

The early, or Mannerist, period presents tombstones like a carpet with a motif around the perimeter and many times with the inscription in the middle.

As Baroque took hold, and as the church began to be embellished with the Grand Masters’ monuments, the tombstones started to resemble the monuments, to the extent that one seems to be looking at a monument, though in this case flat on the ground.

These Baroque tombstones are full of movement, symbolism and colour: there are figures (sometimes of skeletons, sometimes of people), and on some occasions the figures even go over the borders of the tombstone, as if overshadowing them.

Late in the 17th century and early in the 18th, the neo-Classical style came in: this style was simpler and tended to be simply a sarcophagus surmounted by a coat of arms.

There is no comparable example in other churches in Europe because they either tend to have tombstones from a longer range of time, or else the tombstones are in one style only.

The tombstones in St John’s also reflect the Order’s hierarchic fixations. Only Knights Grand Cross, or at least those who had achieved special honours in battles representing the Order, were buried in the church.

The others were all buried in three communal graves underneath the Bartolott Crypt.

(The following is my reflection: the Bartolott Crypt is a fairly high crypt, directly underneath the Oratory and within its foundations. Underneath the crypt there are three levels dug into the ground: evidently the Knights had no qualms or doubts about digging up Valletta to quite a deep level, nor were they afraid of damaging the surrounding structures, including the church itself, which predates the oratory.)

One of their most interesting and intriguing characteristics is their eloquent symbolic language. They are packed with symbols, most of which speak of the military triumphs of the Knights that lie beneath.

Some of the symbols that are featured are of Father Time, holding a sickle in one hand and an hour-glass in the other. Skeletons feature frequently and symbolise man’s mortality, but only of the body and not of the soul.

A visitor will also notice several types of weapons that would have been carried off in battle as war trophies – in fact they feature in 375 of the tombstones. So the message here is clearly one of military triumph, often of one religion over another.

Although there is a profusion of skeletons, strangely enough the end result is not macabre but celebratory: death is the moment of salvation and only the body is being returned to the ground.

Some other symbols visitors might want to look out for are cherubs holding laurel wreaths and palm fronds, symbols of victory and martyrdom respectively. And there are rosary beads – the Knights were very dedicated to the Virgin of the Rosary and she was often asked to intervene on their behalf to God before a battle.

One can also see obelisks as a symbol of eternal life. Here death is seen not as the end of life but as the beginning of life in glory.

The visitor will also come across allegories: Minerva, goddess of war and wisdom, (from classical mythology in a Catholic Co-Cathedral!) dressed in armour bearing the eight-pointed cross: the allegory of the virtues of the Order. The image of a woman with a mirror in her hand is the allegory of truth that is revealed with the passage of time.

One will find several garlands of fruit and flowers, which symbolise the abundant virtues of the deceased.

The placing of the tombstones was similarly strictly hierarchical. The front tombs are those of bishops. The one in the middle, facing the high altar, is that of the prior of the church, Camarasa. Fortunately covered by the protective carpet today, its main feature is a bishop’s mitre which, unlike all the other symbols in the church, is not embedded in the tombstone but raised.

The other two bishops who are buried are Alpheran de Bussan and the Maltese bishop Imbroll.

The floor of St John’s has sometimes been called a roll call of the most noble families of Europe before the French Revolution. Moving sideways from the centre of the church, right at the top left-hand corner, next to the Chapel of the Italian Langue (near the place where the Carafa Madonna is today venerated), is the tomb of a Medici, with the characteristic coat of arms with balls. There is also a Grimaldi from the ruling family of Monaco.

The centre of the nave is reserved for those who were considered to be most worthy of honour, especially those who were victorious in battle.

Such is the case of Jacques de Fouille d’Escranville, who died in 1703. The tombstone recalls his military achievements more than any other feature. Appointed Captain General of the Order’s galleys, he furnished a galley at his own expense. In battle, he captured many enemy ships. In fact, his epitaph has a galley as its background. Somewhat strangely, it begins speaking about him in the third person but later the epitaph changes to the first person, a plea for prayers for his soul.

Nearby is the tombstone of Fra Louis de Fleurigny, who died in 1716. This shows the mothership of the Turkish fleet aflame, thanks to his military skills. The battle flags and the weapons on this tombstone are those of the Turks, a clear symbol of the Knight’s victory.

Other notable Knights are buried in the church. Mattia Preti is buried in a communal grave, while architect Romano Carapecchia, who designed some of Valletta’s churches and also some of the tombstones, is buried in the Bartolott Crypt.

Fra Ipolito Malaspina, an incredibly powerful relative of the Grimaldis, (who was also responsible for bringing Caravaggio to Malta), and a Knight Grand Cross of the Italian Langue who died in 1629, is buried in the chapel of the Italian Langue, as is Fra Francesco Sylos, who paid for the entire decoration of the chapel from his own pocket.

The tombstone of Fra Claude de Blot Viviers, who died in 1672, is in the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. It cost 100 scudi to make. It was so badly damaged that it had to be removed and is being restored in the Co-Cathedral’s own Marmisti workshop.

Many Maltese do not know that included among the tombstones is one of a Maltese man. This is Giuseppe Nicola Zammit, a Maltese lawyer of civil and pontifical law who died in 1823. He was of noble birth but was not a Knight. His recently restored tomb is by the wall in the chapel of the Langue of Auvergne.

Yet another tombstone, again in the centre of the nave, is that of Fra Giovanni Brancaccio, who died in 1686. His epitaph speaks of his chivalrous role in the Order. He was the Captain General of the galleys and also the admiral of the Italian Langue and the prior of Santo Stefano. His tombstone is remarkable for on it one can see a half-formed skeleton, in that while the head is skeletal, the rest of the limbs still have flesh. The body itself is wrapped in a shroud.

We also know the names of at least two of the sculptors of the tombstones. Vitale Covati was a sculptor from Messina, who came to Malta in 1645 and worked at St John’s for 28 years. He prepared several tombstones but is more known for his reredos of the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament,

formerly the Chapel of the Madonna of Philhermos.

Bartholomeo Bambace, another sculptor from Palermo, worked with him and also made several of the tombstones in St John’s.

The arrangement of the tombstones in St John’s today is not the way in which they were originally placed. When the Knights were expelled from Malta by Napoleon in 1798, although the Baroque style was still the rage in Malta (apparently it still is, as can be seen from the street furniture used in the festi – it seems somehow well-suited to the Maltese character), the French and later the British brought over to Malta the neo-Classical style. Baroque began to be looked upon as too extravagant, frivolous and lacking in spirituality.

It was Giuseppe Hyzler, (1787-1858), the leader of the Nazarene Movement, who in 1833 re-arranged the tombstones.

As their name implies, the Nazarenes were not just an artistic movement but also a religious one, all for purification and simplification. They began removing decorative elements from churches. In St John’s it started with the chapel of the Langue of France, from which it removed many baroque elements. However, this resulted in a national uproar, and Hyzler was stopped.

With regard to the tombstones, Hyzler placed them in a more symmetrical order. This re-arrangement, however, was not as drastic as people seem to think. Pietro Paolo Caruana had documented the floor of St John’s before Hyzler started his re-arrangement exercise. This documentation not only includes the layout of the floor but also contains paintings of all the tombstones. Sometimes these are important for consultation purposes, as later restorations may have altered the colour of some of the marble that was used.

Restoring the damage

Jesmond Bartolo, though still relatively young, has already been working for 23 years as marmista on the tombstones in St John’s.

Educated at the School of Art at Targa Gap, he later followed courses at the Istituto delle Pietre Dure in Florence and has today become Malta’s prime marmista. Until a few years ago he was employed by the Works Department but when the The St John’s Foundation took over the administration of the church, he was employed, and received further specialised training, by it.

He has also worked at The Palace – he produced the coat of arms of Malta, as well as the marble inscription documenting Pope John Paul’s visit.

The other marble craftsman at St John’s is Raymond Aquilina.

Taking the Giuseppe Nicola Zammit tombstone as an example, Mr Bartolo explained how restoration could be a very difficult and long process.

The tombstone had been almost obliterated over the years. In particular, the blue colour had been almost completely lost, and the marmisti were unable to find a similar blue. Close examination showed it was not marble at all, but glass, which was very fashionable in the 19th century. Contrary to what some people may have thought, this is not lapis lazuli, as there is just a few metres away on the main altar. There are many instances of similar blue glass in Mdina Cathedral.

Mr Bartolo did a lot of research on the subject but it was only when he was sent by The St John’s Foundation to a specialised fair in Verona that he found an exact match.

Every tombstone, he says, is a voyage of discovery. The marble used in St John’s came from a variety of countries and places. Most of the red marble came from Messina (Diaspro di Sicilia) but the black came from Belgium (Nero del Belgio). Yellow came from Siena (Giallo di Siena) while other types of red came from France (Rosso di Francia). Other marble came from Africa and also from Spain (Broccatello di Spagna). Obviously, the white marble came from Carrara. Hence the ongoing challenge presented by the restoration of the marble floor.

The tombstones were not made for the very heavy traffic they receive today and have suffered from abrasion over the years. In order to slow down this process, which is inevitable with the passage of time, a specially ordered and made protective carpet has been installed on a specific route for visitors to follow.

The marble is very thin – some 5 mm in depth only – and since it is a veneer, it becomes as brittle as glass. In addition, the glue that lies at the bottom interacts with the damp of the ground and often becomes loose.

That is why stiletto heels are strictly not allowed in St John’s. The marble gets shattered and breaks up into a lot of small pieces, which are then carried away by the shoes. Every time there is a State function at St John’s, or a concert, etc., the attendees gather many loose particles from the floor.

There is a lot of awareness of this problem today, Ms de Giorgio commented, but one still gets people who resist the rule. The cathedral offers people wearing stilettos a pair of slippers and no one is turned away from the church just because of stiletto heels, but there are still people who reject the slippers and leave.

St John’s belongs to everyone, Ms de Giorgio added, which is why all Maltese should feel that they all have a duty to help preserve it. Ownership also means responsibility for the Co-Cathedral’s preservation for future generations.

In 2006, the Foundation purchased a special carpet like the one that is used at the Basilica di San Marco in Venice. This has to be changed every 10 years and every 10 days it has to be thoroughly cleaned. It takes five workers five hours to clean it.

Readers are encouraged to refer to in order to appreciate the design and composition of each tombstone as well as the various other architectural and artistic beauty of the Co-Cathedral.

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