Life is priceless; medical intervention is priceless; a timely rescue from death is priceless. Yet, material objects such as aircraft, yachts, luxury automobiles, homes, and handbags all have monetary values placed on them based on workmanship, materials, utility, and function. But Malta’s Gobelin Tapestries are truly priceless beyond conception, and visitors can now see these one-of-a-kind works of art through June 24, 2023, on full display in St John’s Co-Cathedral in Malta’s capital city of Valletta.
They are the only complete and intact set of the famous 18th-century Gobelins tapestries in the world. The tapestries set was a gift by Grand Master Ramon y Perellos to the Order’s Conventual Church, and first arrived in Malta in 1702.
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“Malta’s Most Celebrated Gobelin Tapestries are at St. John’s Co-Cathedral”
La Valette – St John
There were three aspects to the Knight Hospitaliers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in Malta; the first was a caring and nursing role and provision of then known medicines to treat the war-wounded and serve general disease prevention. This resulted in the pioneer opening of hygienic hospitals (that is, hygienic for that era!). Their nursing role later gave birth to the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, still active today and still bearing the Maltese Cross as their logo.
A further aspect was a fierce and militant military role which had led the fray in The Crusades and then continued as the principle defenders of the Christian faith in Europe against the forays of Islam.
The Grandmasters and Knights were constantly geared for war, well-armed and well-trained, and they conscripted local soldiers and mariners as well as openly sanctioning piracy and plunder at sea either through their own galleys or by contracting mercenary captains who owned their own ship. These were stringently licensed and checked as a license was specifically needed for attacking Muslim ships. Under no circumstances could a Christian ship be pirated.
St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta is a gem of Baroque art
Leading Knights in the Order were closely related to Europe’s royal families and had great aspirations and expectations. They took vows of abstinence from carnal pleasures (rarely observed!), and almost regarded themselves as Bishops and Cardinals, although they were not ordained to celebrate Mass, confer baptisms, hear confessions and distribute Holy Communion.
Their military might was a matter of concern for other sectors of Christianity, particularly the Popes at the time who viewed their power with a suspicious eye. Some Grandmasters even went as far as to assume they were the equivalent of a Pope and portraits of them often contained the Papal Hat and the Papal Keys somewhere in the background.
This lust for rivalry motivated the Knight Grandmasters to go over the top in extravagance. The original builder of Valletta as Malta’s new capital city, Grandmaster Jean Parisot de la Valette (buried in a crypt in the Cathedral), had no such extravagant plan. His motivation was that a capital city should have a Cathedral, although Malta still had an old Cathedral at Mdina, and thus it became a Co-Cathedral.
Succeeding Grandmasters had other ideas and the splendour of the Flemish Gobelin Tapestries came to fruition to enable the Valletta Cathedral to rival The Vatican – and they did, PLUS!!
Monument to Gradmaster Nicolo Cotoner who transformed the cathedral into a baroque showpiece.
St John’s Co-Cathedral is a must visit in Valletta and the tapestries have been refurbished and restored. A total of 29 are now clad for exhibit in the cathedral as they were in the 17th and 18th centuries.
Restoration work was spread over 16 years at a cost of €1.3 in 2006 and carried out by the Laboratories of Royal Manufacturers De Wit, in Belgium. The majority of the tapestries are 6.5-metres wide and in total cover 750 square metres. They are the largest set of tapestries in the world.
These undoubtedly enabled St John’s Co-Cathedral to grow in splendour, embellished further by various prestigious works of art, including paintings by the rogue artist Caravaggio and one of his most famous portrayals of The Beheading of St John. Over the years the cathedral’s art collection was further augmented by embellishing the tombs and crypts of the Grandmasters and Knights, each trying to outdo their predecessors in splendour and ornamentation.
The Tapestries in all their splendour
The Line-up of What You Will Treasure
- A portrait of Ramon Perellos y Roccafull,
- The Adoration of the Magi, 1702
- The Triumph of the Catholic Church, wool and silk, 1699-1701
Seven Tapestries Depict Scenes From the Life of Christ
- The Annunciation
- The Adoration of the Shepherds
- The Adoration of the Magi
- Christ’s Entry to Jerusalem
- The Last Supper
- The Raising of the Cross
- The Resurrection
Seven Tapestries Depict the Triumph of the Roman Catholic Church
- The Defenders of the Eucharist
- Triumph of Divine Love
- Triumph of the Catholic Church
- Triumph of Faith
- The Victory of Truth over Heresy
- The Victory of the Eucharist over Paganism
- The Four Evangelists
Fourteen Narrow Tapestries Depict
- St Jude Thaddeus
- St Simon
- St Matthew
- St Bartholomew
- St Philip
- St James the Less
- St Thomas
- St John
- St James the Greater
- St Andrew
- The Virgin Mary
- Christ the Saviour
- St Paul
- St Peter
BeSeeingYou In: Malta
Good To Know:The public exhibition of the tapestries goes from 5 May until 24 June 2023.
WOW! Factor: These are the only complete and intact set of the famous 18th-century French Gobelins tapestries in the world.
TIP: See the cathedral without the crowds on an after-hours private guided tour, offered weekdays only, upon request.
Author bio: Albert Fenech