(Rivista Internazionale - December 1995: The painter knights - 3/3)

Mattia Preti. Madonna and Child with St. Anne and St. Gregory presenting the portrait of Grand Master Gregorio Carafa (Church of St. Francis, Valletta).

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. Study of a Saint of the Order painted under the scene of John the Baptist indicating the Messiah in St. John's Cathedral (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford).

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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