|This site contain articles, views and reviews
on funerary art, in particular those of the
Order of St John, representing 383 marble
inlaid tombstones, 24 sepulchral monuments
at St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta.
This polychrome marble inlaid floor is one of
the many baroque splendours of the former
conventual church of the Order. This church
arose out of the ashes of disaster of the
Great Siege of Malta 1565, a massive
cumulation of conflict between the Order of St
John and the Ottoman Empire.
In his fascinating book ‘Memento Mori’, the researcher
Dane Munro has painstakingly transcribed, edited and
translated the inscriptions of the tombstones of the Order
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
By clicking Articles one can start reading some articles.
This site will strive to develop into a centre of funerary art
in general. Contributions will be considered.
including a translation into English. The corpus gives an excellent insight in the living soul of the Knights of
A major defining characteristic of St. John Co-Cathedral is its memorial floor of some 383 polychrome marble
intarsia (inlaid) tombstones. The public display of those tombstones forms part of the collective identity of the
Knights of St. John, and shows the solidarity between the living and the dead Knights. Besides, the eulogies always
had an educative and inspirational intention, whose validity, one hoped, would serve as a message in
In order fully to enjoy the tombstones at St. John’s, needs to obtain some knowledge of the various layers of
perception which are embedded in the marble. One of the greatest drawbacks for the modern readers is the
difficulty of understanding how it was to live in the 16th to 18th centuries, to possess that culture and mentality,
and moreover, know to what it was to be a living and dying Knight of the Order.
As time passed, these messages are read by persons who no longer have any direct emotional ties with the
deceased or their era; they are being looked at by persons who no longer understand the language or culture.
From that moment the tombstones have ceased to be monuments of memory in that sense, when memory parts and
shifts to history and, one may hope, to cultural heritage.
The beauty of the Latin at St. John’s lies in its richness and diversity of outlook, style and spelling. There are
probably nearly as many tombstones as there are authors, of whom the majority remained anonymous. As stated,
one can assume that in many cases the deceased contributed to the content of the text. On a few occasions the
name of the author is known. All the authors kept their own views of Latin, unwittingly preventing the corpus at St.
John’s to acquire a boring uniformity. St. John’s definitely did not become a melting pot of European Latin. Although
written for the same occasion, it forms, under one roof, a rare collection of the finest international panegyric
occasional literature, chiselled on unequalled marble art. When these tombstones are compared with similar works
outside Malta, one may carefully conclude that the quality of the Latin is very high, and that the iconography,
through its quantity and quality, is unique.
The aim of a panegyric, chiselled on a tombstone, is to identify and identify with the deceased, whose mortal
remains are reposing beneath. It needs to record information necessary for proper identification, such as the name,
ancestry and coat of arms. There must be words of consolation and instruction, and words of praise for the
deceased’s achievements, but also his relatives and dedicators are lauded, in the hope that their virtue will be an
example to countless others.
Layers of perception
In early Christianity it was deemed arrogant and pagan to eulogise the dead,
rather than to simply pray for their souls. Humanism changed this custom to
the opposite, and the virtues of the deceased were emphasised to the extent
that the epitaph became a summary of the late person’s achievements and
A set of ingenious and most emotional devices were developed for those
Knights who believed in Purgatory, and therefore had the necessity,
according to temporary Baroque views on religious matters, to shorten their
stay in Purgatory by obtaining prayers from the living. In this respect there
great solidarity between the living and the dead, and this provides also the
raison-de-être of not only having memorials in a public place, but also to
attract individual attention. To attract and to impress were important features
in Baroque art and mentality, and great competition created the need for
great art and sublime ways to obtain prayers for one’s soul.
The inscribed text contains layers of conception. The trained
contemporaneous reader could perceive a number of layers in the inscribed
text, giving it depth, meaning and purpose: In general, there would be
mentioning of personal information, geographical references, historical
references, quotations from Bible & Classical Latin, figures of speech,
references to Classical figures, references to saints and feasts, references
to heroism and nostalgia of the Great Siege.
The personal information contains the name of the deceased, his genealogy
(family), origin (city or region), age indication, date of demise and cause of
The knight's cursus honorum (cv) and res gestae (achievements) include
normally his ranks and titles, his offices, other achievements and last but
not least his heroical deeds. Dying in battle would be the highest
achievement in this field.
Very important were also the mention of good deeds, sacrifices and his last
deed. Often the texts are quite bold, but hyperbolic praise belonged to the Knights’ perception of the world.
However, the iconography of the tombstones is much more exuberant and triumphal than the inscribed texts. There
is a certain code of humility in the texts, but of course, a picture says more than words.
Regarding the iconography, the Baroque taste at St John's had developed over the years a fine set of about 100
symbols, with which religious supremacy and military victory could be superbly expressed. In the Baroque Theatrum
mundi It seems that the Angels of Fame never seem out of breath when blowing their trumpets to sound the
deceased’s reputation to the four winds, while, inkeeping with the theatrics of Baroque, other allegorical figures on
marble are also playing to the gallery, reckoning promptings from inside the grave.
All colour photographs on this site by Maurizio Urso. Reproduced by courtesy of St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation.