The Treasure of the Knight Hospitallers in 1530
Reflections and Art Historical Considerations

Mario Buhagiar
   In 1530 the crusading brotherhood of the Hospitaller Knights of St. John of Jerusalem accepted the offer of the Emperor Charles V to occupy the Maltese Islands and hold them against the Ottomans who were seeking to control the Central Mediterranean. Seven years previously, on January 1st, 1523, the Knights had evacuated their convent on the island fortress of Rhodes, in the Dodecanese, after surrendering on terms to the great sultan, Soleyman the Lawgiver, whose invading army hopelessly outnumbered them. Their tenacity and heroism during the protracted siege earned them the admiration of their great enemy and they were permitted to take with them, in addition to a substantial part of their archives, their personal armour and weapons. They were also allowed to ransom, for jewels and plate, allegedly worth 30,000 ducats, the liturgical furnishings of the conventual church (1). These consisted of a rich collection of holy relics, icons, church-plate, tapestries, sacred vestments, and miscellaneous objets d'art. Other valuables, including the two holy icons of the Damascus and Eleimonitria Madonnas were successfully smuggled out of the island. The accumulated treasure reflected the special and, in many ways, unique character of the haughtily chivalric Order as well as its wealth and prestige.
   The treasure packed in several boxes accompanied the Knights in their seven years of wandering from one Latin Christian court to another before they set up a permanent convent on Malta. There are clear suggestions that it was, in the interval, enriched by new acquisitions, but not all of it managed to reach Malta. At Viterbo, where they languished for almost four years (1523-27), they left behind them, in the church of Sts Faustino and Giovita, which served them as a temporary
conventual church, various objets d'art, among which were a Byzantine icon of the Madonna and Child, several reliquaries, and a chest decorated with armorial shields and painted allegories of the cardinal virtues (2). Other paintings including a triptych of the Virgin and Child with Sts John the Baptist and Sebastian were, subsequently, in 1529, left behind in Nice (3).
   The treasure was also depleted as a result of petty thefts and sundry misadventures (4). The tapestries had a particularly unfortunate history. Some were stolen in Rome during the Spanish sack of 1527, while others were, in that same year, captured at sea by the Turks while being transported to Nice (5). A Flemish tapestry, in silk and wool, in the Museos de Arte de Barcellona, may, perhaps, be a survivor. It represents the Siege of Rhodes of 1480 and is emblazoned with the arms of the Master Émeric d'Amboise (1503-1512) suggesting that it could have been woven for the magistral palace. It was bought in Barcelona, in 1589, by the Taula de Canvi, or, municipal bank, for 150 livres, but its provenance is not recorded (6). The possibility is that it reached Spain in the baggage of an adventurer who had taken part in the Sack of Rome.
   The intrinsic, artistic and religious worth of the Rhodes treasure was well appreciated and, upon its arrival in Malta, steps were taken to have it adequately protected. The Order's historian, Giacomo Bosio, refers to the building in Fort St. Angelo of a strong-room, which he calls a tolo, intended for the safe-keeping of the holy relics and of the most precious and revered objets d'arts (le cose...piu pretiose e care). Its key was under the custody of the Master and the piliers of the eight Tongues (7). Its appearance and exact whereabouts are unrecorded but the choice of the
[1] A.T. Luttrell, "The Rhodian Background of the Order of St. John on Malta", in J. Azzopardi (ed.), The Order's Early Legacy in Malta, Malta 1989, 13.
[2] O. Tencajoli, "Il Soggiorno a Civitavecchia e a Viterbo dell'Ordine di San Giovanni di Gerusalemme di Rodi: 1523-1527", Roma, vii (1929), 487-489.
[3] O. Tencajoli, L'Ordine di San Giovanni di Gerusalemme a Nizza, Turin 1929, 22-23. The painting was emblazoned with the shield of Phillipe Villiers de l'Isle Adam, which suggests either a very late Rhodian work, or, more probably, that it was painted after the loss of Rhodes, possibly in Nice itself.
[41] G. Bosio, Dell'Istoria della Sacra Religione et Militia di San Giovanni Gerosolimitano, iii, Rome 1602, 16. A relic of St. Sebastian was, for example, stolen at Baia, near Naples, by a Greek-rite cleric who reportedly took it to Mallorca.
[5] G. Bosio, ii. (2nd. ed. Rome 1630), iii. 58, 79, 111. The latter were, apparently, recaptured by the Knights in 1530.
[6] The Order of St. John in Malta (ed. Council of Europe), Malta 1970, 278, pl. 33.
[7] Bosio, iii, p. 89.
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