Malta: Nantucket with Flying Skulls

“If you’ve spent any time thinking about a chivalric order lately…” With these words do Happy Menocal and John Swansburg open their Slate piece on Malta and its guardian knights. Surely it wasn’t meant to, but the phrasing makes me think of an ad for a private school. All too easily, I can imagine the parents of my old neighborhood telling each other, “Dustin’s a shoo-in for the Order of the Bath, but we’ve gotten him on the waiting list for the Order of the Garter” or “The admissions director for the Prussian Order of the Black Eagle was all over Meghan, but we think those dueling scars are a little on the vulgar side.”

The article’s worth a read, though. It begins with a recounting of the 1566 siege, during which 500 knights and a few thousand auxiliaries held the island against a force of 22,000 Turks:

The ensuing siege was bitter, even by 16th-century standards. The Turks decapitated and crucified captured knights; the knights retaliated by decapitating Turks and firing their skulls from their cannons. But thanks to the savvy leadership of the septuagenarian knight Jean Parisot de la Vallette—and thanks to some very good luck—the knights managed to keep the Turks from scoring a decisive victory. With the rough seas of winter bearing down on them, the Turkish fleet returned to Istanbul empty-handed. Christendom had been saved, and the Turkish advance into the Western Mediterranean turned back. (For a terrific account of the siege, read Roger Crowley’s Empires of the Sea.)

From there, it moves into a description of Malta’s current-day tourist attractions, including the “fantastically baroque” Co-Cathedral of St. John:

As we walked through the cathedral, our eyes were drawn upward, toward the barrel-shaped ceiling, which is decorated with an elaborate cycle of oil paintings by the Calabrian knight Mattia Preti, who depicted the life and death of John the Baptist, the order’s patron saint. The church’s most impressive achievement, however, is right below your feet. The spectacular floor is made up of 350 polychrome intarsia marble tombstones, which pay homage to the generations of knights buried below. Each tombstone tells the story of an individual knight, with vivid, often macabre imagery and complicated heraldic symbols. (Several of the tombstones would have made excellent Grateful Dead album covers.) Latin inscriptions enumerate the good deeds of the knights and occasionally offer pointed reminders to those still walking the Earth. “Flecte lumina, quisquis es, mortalitatem agnosce,” reads one. “Bend down with your lighted candles, whoever you are, and acknowledge your mortality.” On the tombstone belonging to Fra’ Gaspar de Figuera, a smiling skeleton sits atop a clock, bearing this message: “Venit hora eius. Veniet hora tua”—”His hour came. Yours will, too.” Nothing like a reminder of your inevitable demise to make you appreciate your holiday.

I don’t know about you all, but they had me at the macabre grave markers. In Greyfriars’ Kirkyard, in Edinburgh, every other monument features reliefs of winged hourglasses, or skeletons dancing in burial-sheets, or some other motif that has the effect of reminding visitors: “Booga, booga! You’re gonna DIE!” The same is true of headstones in America’s colonial-era cemeteries: at the peak of the stone is a winged skull. Funny thing about death’s heads: they look cool and eerie carved into 300-year-old marble, but ridiculous carved into my 39-year-old bicep.

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  • Holly in Nebraska

    I recently purchase 2 graves. I am the only Catholic in my family and I wanted to be sure to be buried in holy ground. I had to buy 2, not because I’m fat (ok, I’m fat, but not THAT fat), but because you have get 2 to get an upright monument. (I was informed that they are called monuments now, not tombstones. Shame.) I didn’t want one of those wimpy, flat markers they just mow over. I wanted to cause somebody to break out the weed wacker. I thought I would be freaked out as I went “shopping” with the cemetery (not graveyard) representative. I wasn’t. But then I didn’t see any of the cool stuff you mentioned. The only interesting one is a “few doors down” from me: a metal sculpture of a crane on the grave of the artist himself. (Was that his way of giving everyone the bird?) No skulls or skeletons. She said they don’t let people get that creative anymore. Too bad.

  • Craig

    One highlight of our trip to Malta was a trip around the fortifications in Valetta. My wife was eagerly looking forward to having her picture taken on the San Sebastian Bastion, because that’s one cool name. Once we got there, overlooking the bay, she said “Isn’t a bastion a big wall? Where’s the wall?” I said, “I think we’re standing on top of it.” “OK, take the picture anyway-it will be the San Sebastian Bastion Sans Bastion!”

    On a more serious note, I was impressed to see two plaques in the square outside San Lorenzo Church in Vittoriossa. One commemorated a Knight killed in a pirate raid before the siege, and the other the victims of a WWII bombing raid. Quite a sweep of history, and reminder of how often this tiny place has been an outpost of civilization.

  • jkm

    I think perpetually and with envy of chivalric orders. I am particularly saddened by the knowledge that I will never be of sufficient virtue, pedigree, or (let’s face it) means to be tapped as a Dame of the Equestrian Order of the Holy Sepulchre of Jerusalem, whose international headquarters in the Palazzo de Penitenzione in Rome, just steps from the Vatican, shares a courtyard with the Hotel Columbus, where I had one of the best meals of my life one late afternoon last June. (And I am fully aware that I may be confusing the appeal of the Order with the taste of sun-ripened tomatoes and fresh bufalo mozzarella, but still.) I am descended from Pilgrims who arrived in Salem on the second boat after the Mayflower, and can count many winged skulls and cool admonitory hourglasses among my ancestors’ monuments, but oh the lure of that courtyard in Rome!

  • Melody

    ” I wanted to cause somebody to break out the weed wacker.” Me, too. The older cemeteries are a lot more interesting. They also have epitaphs, which no one can afford anymore. It cost $110 this spring to just carve the date on my mother-in-law’s stone. Whenever we visited our hometown cemetery (we’re also Nebraskans :) our kids always asked to see “the eagle”, a large marker which was a statue of an eagle with the epitaph, “Stabbed through the heart by a traitor” .
    Come to think of it that eagle would make a good tattoo if one were into such things.

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