by Petra Bianchi

In his fascinating book ‘
Memento Mori’, the researcher
Dane Munro has painstakingly translated the
inscriptions of the tombstones of the Knights into
English, offering contemporary readers who are not
familiar with Latin a unique insight into the thoughts,
fears and aspirations of the Knights. Munro’s text is
accompanied by beautiful photographs by Maurizio
Urso, and is published by MJ Publications.

Spread over the grand floor of St. John’s Co-Cathedral
in Valletta (see picture), the rich designs, colours,
textures and exquisite veining of marble ledger stones
create the effect of a painting. The church is lavishly
paved with the finely crafted tombstones of high-ranking
Knights of the Order of St. John, who lived and died in
Malta during the Order’s reign over the island from the
16th to the 18th century.

Many of these decorated marble ledger stones were
commissioned by the deceased themselves well before
their death, to ensure that their place in the church, as
well as in the after-life, would be secure and also fitting
to their rank in the social hierarchy. The elaborate
designs and inscriptions were usually executed to their
own specifications, which was common practice at that
time.

In his well-known poem ‘The Bishop orders his Tomb at
St Praxed’s Church’ (1845), Robert Browning satirised
his Renaissance Bishop’s desire to plan his tomb to
outshine that of his rival Gandolf, who has “paltry onion
stone”, an inferior type of marble that flakes, on his
grave in the same church.

The Bishop warns and begs his illegitimate sons not to
trick him and use “beggar’s mouldy travertine” on his
grave once he is dead; instead he desires them to
place a lump of stunning blue lapis lazuli in his hands,
and to use “peach-blossom marble … rosy and
flawless”, dazzling jasper, and a bronze frieze in bas-
relief to contrast with deep black marble above.

The Knights of St. John commissioned famous and
established architects and artists, such as Romano
Carapecchia and Francesco Zahra, to design their own
tombstones. A sketch of the design would first be drawn
out and then modified and approved by the Knight
himself, with the marbles to be used, mostly imported
from Italy, carefully chosen for their hues and textures.

The design would then be enlarged and transferred
onto a pristine slab of white marble. Once the design
had been skilfully chiselled out by artisans, the
multichrome carved marble was inserted and molten
lead was poured in to form the grooved Roman lettering
of the inscribed epitaph.

“Pray for me”, many of the dead Knights call out and
entreat passers-by, with the idea that prayers said for
them could help shorten their painful stay in purgatory
and hasten their entry into the eternal life.

To ensure that passers-by appreciate how worthy they
are of their prayers, in their inscriptions the Knights list
and display all their virtues and earthly achievements,
particularly their military and naval exploits as defenders
of the faith, as well as their noble family lineage and
coat of arms.  
The tombstones are filled with allegorical images of
death, which form part of a symbolic language warning
the faithful of the vanity of earthly goods while
reminding them of their own mortality, and thus urging
them to instead think of the salvation of their souls.  

Central to this symbolism is the image of a skeleton,
representing death, often wearing a cloak and
brandishing a scythe in the role of the ‘grim reaper’.
This is death treated like a character in a story, come to
claim the living and accompany them into the land of
shadows. At the same time, it is also a horrifying
reflection of the deceased person resting in the tomb
below. This macabre image is intended to provoke a
sense of fear and dread in the onlooker, by showing us
a picture of what we will become. Yet placed within
Christian imagery it also accentuates the comfort that is
offered by the idea of life after death.

Although death, personified in a grinning cloaked
skeleton armed with a scythe, may appear terrifying as
he reflects our own future selves, for the deserving this
figure is to be seen only as a temporary companion to
accompany us to heaven and the eternal life.

The skeleton is often depicted together with the image
of an hourglass or a clock, showing that our time on
earth is limited. Little angels or putti blow trumpets
heralding the entry of the deceased into the after-life, or
hold inverted torches with their light put out to signify
the end of life on earth.

In this pictorial and rhetorical world, the state of the soul
and other abstract concepts are represented in sensual
and material images. The weaponry of the Knights is
also visually important, emphasising their high status,
wealth and power.

This typically baroque love of opulent and exuberant
display is also central to the design of the tombs of the
Grand Masters, which are built on the sides of the
chapels within the church. The celebration of death as
the entry into the after-life, together with the celebration
of the status and achievements of the departed, are
combined into a great spectacle aimed to inspire
veneration and awe. These grandiose funerary
monuments are large and ornate, so that they almost
appear to be bursting out of their restricted spaces
along the walls. Like the ledger stones on the floor, they
are crafted out of a sophisticated blend of elaborate
and expensive materials. Baroque sculpture often
combined different materials within a single work.

It is understandable that an elaborate ritual was
deemed necessary to lay the dead to rest in such
imposing tombs. Baroque funerals were conducted in
line with the extravagant tastes of the age. These
theatrical occasions varied according to the status and
wealth of the departed one, and were often planned in
detail by him during his lifetime.

In his will, the Knight would often include provisions for
the number of Holy Masses, possibly running into
hundreds of services, to be offered for his soul in
purgatory. The idea of purgatory was central to
religious belief at the time. With their emphasis on
purgatory, the tombstones at St. John’s reflect the
religious attitudes and themes of the age.

The imagery on these ledger stones touches on the
inner life of man when confronted with the mystery of
death and the after-life, explaining it in a rich physical
and spatial dimension. It provides a fascinating example
of the blending of the material and the spiritual in the
baroque imagination. The Knights buried beneath these
beautiful and precious stones express their deep and
genuine yearning for immortality in the most material of
ways.
Dr Petra Bianchi holds a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford. She is Director of Din l-Art Helwa, Malta’s National
Trust, and visiting lecturer within the English Department at the University of Malta. She is active as a researcher at
the International Institute for Baroque Studies, and is co-editor of the book Encounters with Malta (2000), a study of
the Maltese Islands over the centuries as seen through the eyes of a wide selection of eminent visitors.