The tombstones on the floor of St John’s Co-Cathedral
offer several layers of perception, says Dane Munro.
In a recent lecture he attempts to explore some of these layers.
Sandra Aquilina, of the Malta Independent, listened in.
It was Nicholas De Piro who coined the phrase
“the most beautiful floor in the world”, referring to the
magnificent tombstones – with marble intaglios and memorial features
– on the floor of St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta.
So far, this phrase has not been disputed.
Whether this appellation is deserved or not, the magnificence
of the floor of St John’s Co-Cathedral cannot be denied.
At St John’s Co-Cathedral there are some 407 pieces of
funerary art in marble, of which 21 sepulchral monuments
and 384 tombstones. Dedication dates span between 1535 – 1890.
Dating is very difficult for a number of reasons. In the best cases the
dates of demise and of placing of the tombstone are given. Moreover,
not all orders for a tombstone passed through a local notary. In one case
a tombstone was placed 100 years after the death of Don Melchior de Robles,
who died a hero’s death during the Great Siege of 1565. Sometimes,
a tombstone was made, and for some reason had changed ownership
after time passed. Thus dating on stylistic grounds can be very unreliable.
The study of funerary art
Both the inscribed text on the tombstones and the artistic expressions
on the slabs are interrelated layers of perception; the study of
funerary art includes all aspects.
Reasons why the tombstones were made are various. A few are obvious,
such as serving the liturgy for the dead, eliciting intercessory prayers and
mourning. Other important factors were showing the triumph of the
Catholic faith, victory over death and military victory. Equally important was to save
the deceased’s exemplary life from oblivion so that it could serve the Order’s culture
of memory, and instruction and emulation of young knights.
Death, in the baroque sense, tries to take a person’s life and one’s reputation. Victory over death can be
achieved when one’s reputation is cast in marble and one’s soul has arrived with God.
Two notions of eternity exist on the tombstones at St John’s, in perfect harmony, namely the Christian
eternity with its Resurrection in the Lord and eternal life in Heaven; and a worldly, “humanist” eternity,
emphasising the immortality of the individual together with his reputation and achievements.
The text on the tombstones
The text of a tombstone generally contains personal information, such as the deceased’s name, genealogy,
place of origin and an age indication (average age is 69).This information is then followed by the knight’s
cursus honorum (his c.v.) and his res gestae (life-time achievements), his ranks and titles and highest
offices. Importance was given to his heroic deeds, good works and last deed, and last but not least, the
cause of death. The inscribed text is also enriched with Bible quotations, references to saints and feasts,
immortality and eternity, commemoration and collective identity. Other references are made to Classical
mythology, heroism, victory and nostalgia of the Great Siege, while worldly reference contains geographical
and historical data, memories of ancient references to chivalry.
One frequent theme are the enemies of the Religion, a very old concept which appears in print in the epic
poem ‘the Song of Roland’, just before the First Crusade (1096). Line 1015 tells us: “Paient unt tort / e
christiens unt dreit” (“The Pagans are wrong and the Christians are right”).
Some of the slabs show a sense of humour; for instance, the final lines of Carlo Carafa’s tombstone read:
“Go now, passer-by, and seek to take up the virtue of this hero… because as yet, you are standing on top of
The iconography on the tombstones
A study of the iconography on the tombstones at St John’s co-Cathedral shows the presence of allegorical
figures, various artistic styles and a wealth of symbols. Not less important are the presence of emblems and
The images include historical battle scenes, instances of sweeping drama, mourning, and references to
Antiquity. Popular was to include scenes of “modern” (=baroque) architecture and design. The visual part of
the tombstones had to connect and appeal to the Order’s collective identity and corporate image. It a rather
small and select local audience, but had a wide reception in main land Europe.
History of the floor
The decision to place marble tombstones at St John’s Co-Cathedral is well recorded. Grand Master Alof de
Wignacourt, in the Chapter General of 13 March 1603, decreed that each Tongue would be responsible for
the maintenance and embellishment of their chapel, including the altar and graves.
After 64 years a decision was made to place marble tombstones in the main nave. There were already a
small number of hard stone slabs present, but not in polychrome intarsia (inlaid marble). By a decree of 15
December 1667 Grand Master Nicolas Cotoner and the Order’s Council unanimously agreed to pave the
main nave with marble slabs, from the high altar to the main door.
This decision to pave the main nave from the main altar down to the main door is confirmed by the text on a
tombstone. The tombstone of Francisco de Torres Pacheco y Cardenas reveals that this knight had restored
to light a number of tombstones and placed them in a chronological order, i.e. from the main altar to the main
The floor plan produced by Pietro Paolo Caruana in his three-volume publication (1838 to 1840) shows
indeed some chronological arrangement of the tombstones. Giuseppe Hyzler, a gifted Maltese artist, was a
follower of the Neo-Classical trend, in Malta embodied in the so-called “Nazarener” movement. His apparent
dislike of baroque has done some harm to St John’s, but before he could do further damage he was asked to
respect the existing art, and not to turn it into a neo-classical temple. One of his more radical deeds was to
organise a total and drastic overhaul of the floor of St John’s Co-Cathedral. By 1833 Hyzler had completed
this exercise, changing the arrangement of the tombstones from a chronological one to a symmetrical one.
Neo-Classicism was an artistic movement in the eighteenth to the twentieth century whose idea was to create
an ideal model after Antiquity, in perfect control of its heritage. Besides leading to fine works of art, however,
it also heralded disaster. Existing works of art were “improved” upon to bring them closer to the ideal of
Antiquity. This aesthetic ideal was mainly based on conjecture. At present such interventions are seen as an
unacceptable form of intervention. The modern opinion and scientific approach of conservation would never
allow interventions which are either harmful or not reversible.
In the periods when the Neo-Classical opinion was in vogue, inscriptions suffered from being “improved” and
“corrected” to the highest ideal and standard of Classical languages. Also when inscriptions were recorded
they suffered from ‘hyper-correction’ by over-zealous classicists.
Following the Leiden Convention of the 1930s, to curb such misconceptions, strict rules were devised for the
editing of inscriptions. Whenever inscriptions are transcribed to paper they should appear in a “strictly
diplomatic” format, which means that the original must be respected, even when it contains mistakes. A set of
critical signs (brackets in various shapes) have been designed to help the reader understand what an editor
of an inscription has done. Anything worth remarking must be recorded in a commentary.
This is extremely important when the inscription of a tombstone has been eroded. In case one contemplates
to replace the eroded inscription, one has to be able to reproduce the original text of the inscription,
including all its mistakes. Bringing about “improvements” or “corrections” serves no purpose and, more
serious, it is an act of vandalism and falsifying history.
One example will suffice. In the picture below, the detail shows two “mistakes”. The foot contains six toes, and
the word “charus” would in the most ideal spelling of Classical Latin appear as “carus”. However, severe
criticism would follow should anyone attempt cosmetic surgery on the foot. In analogy, textual corrections are
equally bad when they are done just for the sake of correction.
Any attempt to “correct” or “improve” or to squeeze the text and image of the tombstones into a uniformity
and regularity where there is none, is an insult to the rich variety and the beauty of St John’s floor.
Photo credits: Maurizio Urso. published by courtesy of St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation
There is a national obligation to conserve “the most beautiful floor in the world”. However, when discussing
issues on the conservation of the tombstones, one must bear in mind that St John’s Co-Cathedral is both a
living church and a museum. Moreover, church floors are by their nature very dynamic so that the
tombstones cannot be treated as museum artefacts only.
Conservation has a long history at St John’s Co-Cathedral. In 1741, a relative of Antonio Mastrillo, who died
in 1619, “restored the coats-of-arms and the inscription, worn away by age, to their original state – making
them even more beautiful, in fact, so that the wear of time would not obliterate such an outstanding man from
memory”. In the past many of such “renovations” appeared, and in terms of conservation, there is now even
need of repair and maintenance of copies of tombstones. There are few tombstones at the floor at St John's
which do not have any traces of repair.
The tombstones have now lost part of their original meaning as they are no longer the objects of veneration
of the past. Although there are exceptions. Family of the Maltese knight Paolo Bertis de Portughes still visit
the church to say a few intercessory prayers for his soul.
However, the majority of the tombstones have acquired new cultural, historical and academic values, even for
localised environmental studies, which are so important that they are worth preserving. The discussion on
conservation is a long and complicated one, but repair is part of it. It has an historical basis, and repair
improves at least the overall aesthetics because the tombstones look “cared for” rather than neglected, and
it slows downs deterioration.
The above was the text of a lecture given by Dane Munro as part of a cycle of presentations organised by
Din L-Art Helwa in 2006.