The painter knights

by Prof. dr. Giovanni Morello, Art Critic and Gobal Coordinator of Exhibitions, Vatican Library and Museums.

(Published in Rivista Internazionale - December 1995)

In the second half of the 16th century the Supreme Pontiffs, and in imitation also other sovereigns, started to confer knightly titles - normally that of the Knight of the Order of Christ - to the most important painters or to those who had distinguished themselves in particular and exacting commissions. This custom, which became increasingly popular in the 17th century, also continued in the next one and only stopped being common practice in the early 19th century.
Besides a gesture of respect and recognition from the sovereign for the artist's services, it was also a tangible way of introducing him into the noble elite of society. The artist, mostly a painter but sometimes also a sculptor or architect and often of humble origin, was ennobled for the merits of his art and admitted as a bona fide member of the upper class. There were many important painters who worked in Rome.

A really famous one was Giuseppe Cesari, called Cavalier d'Arpino (Knight of Arpino) from his native town, responsible for many famous decorative feats (Palazzo dei Conservatori on the Capitol, transept of St. John's Basilica, and designs for the mosaics of the cupola of St. Peter's. Cavalier d'Arpino also had relations with the Order of Malta, since he designed the illustrations for the famous 1588 edition of the Order's Statutes published in Rome.

The Order of St. John of Jerusalem, of Rhodes and of Malta had various painters among its members.
The most famous was undoubtedly Caravaggio. His time with the Order was very brief, but produced masterpieces, certainly some of the most valuable art treasures to be found on Malta.
Much has been written about the character of Michelangelo Merisi, better known by the name of his native town, and not always clearly.
Many points remain obscure, including his admission to the Knights of St. John and his subsequent sudden expulsion from the Order.
Caravaggio travelled to Malta from Naples in the summer of 1607, probably with the Order's galley squadron commanded by Fabrizio Sforza Colonna, son of the Marquis of Caravaggio, arriving in the port of Valletta on 12 July of that year. The artist immediately started work on the island of the knights. His first Maltese paintings were two portraits of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. One is lost, although some copies still remain, whereas the other depicting the Grand Master in armour accompanied by a page holding his helmet, is in the Louvre in Paris.

This painting has aroused much discussion because of the armour the Grand Master is wearing, mainly because there is another portrait of de Wignacourt in the National Museum in Malta, variously attributed to Cassarino, Lionello Spada and even the same Caravaggio. In this second portrait the Grand Master is also wearing his armour, recognisable by the fleur-de-lis of his coat-of-arms, duplicated on the centre of the shield leaning beside him. This 16th-century armour considered the work of the armourer Gerolamo Spacini, is still conserved in the Malta Armoury, as is the cuirass - said to be of the «Pisan style», perhaps in reference to the Milanese workshop of Pompeo della Chiesa (circa 1570-1575) - in the Louvre picture, which does not however bear any heraldic element referable to the Grand Master. Maurizio Calvese has seen a symbolic significance in this armour painted by Caravaggio, speculating that it could have been worn by the Grand Master in the battle of Lepanto, in which de Wignacourt participated with honour.
Another very expressive portrait of the Grand Master in religious habit, is in the Pitti Palace collection in Florence.
The great white cross of profession painted on his chest symbolises, with the sword and rosary, the constituent elements and the history itself of the Order, revealing at the same time an unusual expressive power.

It almost seems that Caravaggio's main artistic work in Malta was to portray de Wignacourt.
His features have also been recognized in the face of St. Jerome writing, the fine oil painting commissioned by Fra' Ippolito Malaspina for the Chapel of the Langue of Italy in Malta, unfortunately stolen in 1984 from the St. John Museum of Valletta and still not found.

A year later on 14 July 1608, Caravaggio was received into the Order probably on the initiative of the Grand Master not as Knight of Grace, as commonly believed, but as Knight of Obedience.The document, preserved in the Order's archive in Malta, attests that «Michaeli Angelo de Caravaggio» was received «in gradum fratrum militum obedientiae».
Caravaggio's militancy in the Order was very brief. On 6 October the Grand Master ordered his capture after he had fled from the Sant'Angelo Fort where he was held in custody, and he was expelled from the Order on the following 1st December. This measure was probably prompted by the news that the artist was a fugitive from justice for having killed Ranuccio Tomassoni in Rome two years earlier; something which must have caused much embarrassment to de Wignacourt who had been very generous in his gifts to Caravaggio.

However, in this brief span of time Caravaggio managed to complete one of his most tragic works, «The Beheading of St. John the Baptist», which is the only work he signed, and which also constitutes a record of his short time as a member of the Order of Malta. The blood gushing from the saint's neck forms the words «f. Michelang(el)o» on the ground, where the f. stands not for «fecit» but instead for «fra'», as fitting for a Knight of St John. Despite the «damnatio memoriae» following his expulsion from the Order, which was probably the reason why the same Grand Master soon got rid of the portraits Caravaggio had painted, a fine portrait of the artist remains, with the Order's great white cross on his chest, painted by Ottavio Leoni and is now in a private collection in Avignon.

Mattia Preti, the «Cavaliere calabrese» (Calabrian Knight), spent a much more peaceful time in the Order of Malta.
He arrived in Malta in the summer of 1659 to decorate St. John's Co-Cathedral - which was to be his major undertaking - with the series of frescoes depicting "Stories from the Life of St. John the Baptist and Saints and Heroes of the Order".
Preti was admitted as Knight of Obedience in the Order of St. John of Jerusalem in 1642. Some documents recently found in the Secret Vatican Archives confirm this, testifying to the Barberini Pope Urban VIII's recommendation to the Grand Master to have him received.
Arriving in Malta, Mattia Preti asked to be raised to the rank of Knight of Grace, which occurred on 15 September 1661, after the papal dispensation from the Chigi Pope Alexander VII. The artist worked in the conventual church of the Knights on Malta from around 1661 to 1666 on the oil paintings decorating the vault, the apse and the counter-facade, as well as on the holy stories in the chapels of the individual Langue, done moreover at his own expense.

Having become the official painter of the Hierosolymite Order the Cavaliere Calabrese stayed on the island, albeit many of his works continued to arrive in various cities of Italy, commissioned by noble families linked to the Knights of Malta. Mattia Preti died in Malta, aged 86, on 3 January 1699 and was buried under the nave of the church of St. John in Valletta, which he had embellished with his artistic talent and where he had glorified with his brush the Order which had received him.
Other famous artists received the white cross of the Hierosolymite Order.
Ludovico Cardi, called Cigoli, from his native town, was admitted to the Order as a «Militant Knight» on 30 April 1613. The artist had carried out numerous commissions for the Borghese Pope Paul V, for his nephew Cardinal Scipione and for other personages of the Borghese family, who had him received in the Order of Malta as a sign of their appreciation.

A few weeks later, Cigoli died on 8 June without having been able to leave any trace of his activity in the Order We are left with a fine portrait, now in the Musée de Beaux-Arts of Chambery, probably done after his death by his pupil Sigismondo Coccapani, in which he is depicted holding his painting instruments and with the Order's cross on his chest.
The artistic activity of Antoine de Favray for the Order was more substantial. After the death of Mattia Preti no painter of talent was linked to the Order of Malta until de Favray arrived on the island in 1744 to decorate various churches. He was received into the Order on 12 July 1751 as «servente d'arme» by the Grand Master Pinto de Fonseca, of whom he did the splendid portrait in «cappa magna» now in the sacristy of St. John's Co-Cathedral in Malta.
An excellent portraitist, de Favray painted an authentic gallery of Grand Masters and eminent personages of the Order, views of Maltese life and the famous «View of the Interior of St. John's Cathedral» now in the St. Petersburg Hermitage.
Appointed Knight Commander of Valcanville in Normandy by Grand Master Emmanuel de Rohan for his artistic merits, de Favray never left the Knights' island again. Except for an extended sojourn in Constantinople from 1762 to 1771. In fact he remained in Malta, after Napoleon's occupation in 1798, and eventually died there.

Giovanni Morello



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