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The architectural legacy of the Knights of St John in Malta

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The architectural legacy of the Knights of St John in Malta

Located between Africa and Europe in the middle of the Mediterranean, the Maltese Islands have been coveted by all the major civilisations throughout history. The Greeks, Phoenicians, Arabs, Normans, the Spanish, the Knights of St John, the French and finally the British have all colonised these islands at some point or another.
Knights of Malta Map of Malta

The islands have few natural resources, namely just raw limestone, but what it lacked in resources was more than compensated by its strategic location.

The Knights are considered by most historic commentators to have left the largest legacy on the Islands of Malta.

Who were the Knights of St John?
Knights of Malta
The Knights of St John of Jerusalem (AKA Knights of Malta) were formed centuries before their arrival in Malta. They were established in 1085 as a community of Knights and were initially responsible for looking after the sick, at the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem. They later added a military aspect to their Order in response to the need to defend ‘Crusader’ territory in the Holy Lands. After losing the ‘Holy Land’ in 1187, relocating to Cyprus and then to Rhodes, the Knights finally arrived in Malta in 1530, having accepted the islands from Charles V, the Holy Roman Emperor.
Who were the Knights of St John?

In those days, Malta occupied a position located on the frontier between the Christian and Muslim worlds. The whole of southern and central Christian Europe was under threat from the marauding forces of the Muslim alliance.  Malta was seen as a stalwart and a major obstacle to the incessant advance of the invading enemy.

Birgu fortifications
Soon after their arrival Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam set about fortifying the harbour areas, particularly Forts St Elmo, Angelo and Michael. These forts were crucial to Malta’s victory during the Great Siege of 1565 and this victory, followed by the victories at Lepanto (1571) and at Vienna (1683), heralded the beginning of the end of the Ottoman Empire and its power in Europe and the Mediterranean.

1566 saw Grand Master La Vallette place the founding stone of a new city named Valletta, a city “built by gentlemen for gentlemen”.

Today, as you march up and down the grid-like streets you can breathe-in the Knights of Malta’s legacy with every step you take.

Inside the maze of defences is a city full of churches, palaces, museums, auberges and art galleries. Valletta is jam-packed with beautiful baroque buildings and imposing military structures.

Outside the city gates lie the defensive walls of the Floriana, Margarita and Cottonera Lines.

Knights of Malta
Medieval knight in full armor to guard the castle
How did they transform the Maltese landscape?
From the 16th century to the late 18th century the islands were transformed into a Mediterranean military Christian fortress and a centre of arts and culture.
Red Tower Mellieha Malta

The sophisticated network of coastal defenses, fortresses, watch towers, curtains, bastions, embankments, cavaliers, as well as churches, a cathedral, hospitals, lazarettos, gardens and palaces still occupy the Maltese landscape today.

This was all achieved with the help of some of the leading European engineers, artists and architects such as Girolamo Cassar, Mondion, Mattia Preti and Caravaggio, together with funding from the Order of St John.

The fact that the Knights swore a vow of celibacy, obedience and poverty to the Roman Catholic Faith meant that their children could not be legally recognised as their legitimate heirs.

Instead the knights, rather than bestowing their wealth and fortune on their offspring, embellished Malta through countless civil, religious and military constructions.

Valletta cannons
European School of English Mdina Malta Malta
Places to visit

It would take some time to visit all the sites that the Order built in Malta!

However if time is short it’s certainly worth visiting St John’s Co-Cathedral, the Grand Master’s Palace, Fort St Elmo, the Sacred Infirmary and Upper Barrakka Gardens all found in Valletta.

Also the Inquisitors Palace and Fort St Angelo in Vittoriosa and the Grand Master’s Palace located in Mdina are a must see whilst on the island.

Old entrance
Knights of Malta
Caring for the sick

The Knights originally cared for the sick with the Order’s founding father, Blessed Gerard, establishing the Hospital of St John in Jerusalem.

Knights of Malta on parade

Today it is fitting that the Order remains true to its founding principles, summarised in the motto:

‘nurturing, witnessing and protecting the faith and serving the poor and the sick’.

These principals have become a reality through present day humanitarian and social assistance projects found in some 120 countries worldwide.

Knights of Malta flag
Focus on Fluency
  • coveted(v) -highly sought after.
  • legacy (n) – something, for example buildings and structures handed down from one generation to future generations.
  • marauding  (adj.) – going about in search of things to steal or people to attack.
  • stalwart (n) – a dependable, reliable strong supporter.
  • sophisticated (adj) – something that is highly developed.
  • funding (n) – money provided.
  • embellished (n) – make something more attractive.

About the Author

Simon Vincenti
Simon Vincenti
Academic Year Course Administrator

Simon has taught for a number of years in both the UK and Malta. His interests are varied and include rugby and Maltese history.