Maltese Rossica

One of the most fascinating episodes in the history of Russia is the establishment of close ties with the Knights of St John of Jerusalem, a religious and military order of the Roman Catholic Church based on the island of Malta. This remarkable event happened during the reign of Emperor Paul I at the very end of the eighteenth century.

Military and political concerns were not the only reasons why Orthodox Russia established ties with the Catholic knights of Malta. Paul I was also inspired by the romantic dream of uniting aspects of Russian life with European culture and the principles of chivalry. He wanted to place Orthodoxy and Catholicism on an equal footing in a symbolical act designed to capture the attention and imagination of the rest of the world.

Russia’s relationship with the Order of the Hospital of St John of Jerusalem dates from the late seventeenth century, when Peter the Great’s envoys, Count Pyotr Tolstoy and Count Boris Sheremetev, visited the island of Malta. Regular contacts with the Knights Hospitallers were established during the reign of Catherine the Great.

In the late eighteenth century, like the rest of the continent, Malta was swept up in the events of the French Revolution. Many of the Knights Hospitallers suffered the confiscation of their French estates following the overthrow of the Bourbons. The Maltese Order appealed to the Russian Empire for direct help.

Paul I responded by establishing a Roman Catholic priory of the Order of St John in St Petersburg on 6 January 1797. The priory was awarded special funds and privileges, while a French émigré, Louis Joseph de Bourbon, Prince de Condé, was appointed the grand prior. In parallel, a second Orthodox priory was created for the Russian nobility.

When Napoleon Bonaparte occupied Malta in June 1798, the Knights Hospitallers asked the Russian emperor to take the order under his personal protection. Paul agreed and St Petersburg became the new headquarters of the order. The knights were invited to Russia and the island of Malta became a de facto province of the Russian Empire. On 13 November 1798, the Russian emperor was officially awarded the title of grand master of the Order of St John of Jerusalem at a special ceremony in the Winter Palace.

The Maltese Order left its trace on many aspects of Russian life. The name of grand master was added to the long list of official titles of the emperor of Russia. Maltese crosses were included in the official coat of arms, the imperial seal and regimental banners. Paul I ordered the Maltese banner to be hung from the bastion of the Admiralty, opposite the Winter Palace. As knights of the Order of St John of Jerusalem, Paul’s milieu wore a special uniform with crimson cuirass straps and a large white cross.

This short episode in Russian history found its way into many works of architecture in St Petersburg. The knights swore their oath of allegiance at the Church of the Nativity of St John the Baptist, which was built by Georg Friedrich von Veldten in the Gothic Revival style on Stone Island. The Çesme Church on the Moscow Highway was awarded to the order as a chapterhouse.

The official residence of the knights was the Vorontsov Palace on Sadovaya (Garden) Street, where Giacomo Quarenghi added a Maltese chapel with a richly decorated altar, ecclesiastical objects and the red velvet throne of the grand master. Nikolai Lvov built the Priory Palace in Gatchina as the official residence of the Prince de Condé. Vincenzo Brenna designed the Cavaliers Room in Pavlovsk Palace for special ceremonial occasions.

Another memorial to the presence of the Maltese Order in St Petersburg is St Michael’s Castle, Paul’s official residence and the scene of his murder in March 1801. The emperor was awarded the title of grand master of the order in the course of construction work and this is reflected in the palace facades and in the interior decor of such halls as the Maltese Knights Gallery and the Maltese Throne Room.

The emperor’s death brought the activities of the Maltese knights in Russia to an abrupt end. In 1817, the Russian branch of the Order of St John of Jerusalem was officially disbanded and the wearing of Maltese crosses was forbidden. But the memory of this brief episode in Russian history still lives on to this day in the romantic architecture of St Petersburg.

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