Monday, 19 June 2017

Museum of the Order of St. John

St. John’s Gate
St. John’s Lane
London EC1M 4DA

Friday June 16 2017

After our travel travails of last week we thought we would try an easier option and head into town, more specifically Clerkenwell and a double dose of culture with the Museum of the Order of St. John and the Charterhouse, of which you will hear another day.

The Museum of the Order of St John is tucked into one side of a gateway Arch – the surviving remnant of the Tudor period of a still more ancient foundation. We had taken a tour to see more of the building (excellently led by Susan – many thanks), but the core museum galleries are accessible daily and give the history of the institution and display some of its artefacts. The Museum has been recently renovated and there are short films with St John’s volunteers contributing to the story.
Firstly, and to clarify any Dan Brown created misconceptions, the Order of St John was founded in Jerusalem before the Crusades to offer hospitality and care to pilgrims who made the trek to the Holy Land – the Knights Templar were there to guard the temple (of the Holy Sepulchre) and were altogether more pugnacious, and NOT the subject of today’s museum.

Think large hostel rather than hospital, with about 1000 beds it is thought – obviously the folk who had made the long journeys were in need of rest, recuperation and possibly some nursing , and this is what they would have received in the Holy City from c 1078, some 40 years later those offering the service were recognised as Brothers – that is monks, though they were never a silent, begging, academic or even particularly spiritual order . It is not clear for which St John they were named – I like to think it was for the Greek Patriarch now known as St John the Almoner but it is more likely St John the Baptist. The order remained in Jerusalem for about 100 years, then as Crusader power waned moved to Acre and spent the next seven hundred years or so wandering round the Mediterranean – Cyprus, Rhodes, Malta and (after Napoleon evicted them from there) finally Rome. Some of the some of the Museum’s ojects reflect this peripatetic history.

In 1140 the order set itself up in England and Clerkenwell became its HQ and main base. At the time of the foundation this area had several religious foundations – the Carthusians arrived much later   but the orders at St Bart’s and St Mary’s had been founded a few years earlier. Bart's  went on to become a medical foundation while St John’s took some time and changes to find its niche. With ‘Faith Care & Valour’ as its founding principles it was both a very English story and an International one.

The picture which takes pride of place and is conspicuously not one of the many ‘Knights’ who led the Order is rather surprisingly a Caravaggio of the 'Card Sharps'. Originally thought to be  a copy but now officially authenticated, it seems slightly at odds for a quasi religious organisation though of course Caravaggio did flee to Malta after the alleged killing in Rome and was taken in by the Hospitallers there, even becoming one of their ‘knights’ till he started brawling again and moved on to Sicily. This is a very recent loan to the Museum.

Back to Tudor London and the Dissolution of the Monasteries – it would seem by this time the Order of St John was in less than perfect working order and the ‘last Prior’ William Weston did not resist the Dissolution and so there was little bloodshed: the Priory was taken apart amicably with the usual removal of building materials for other ventures – the Church had been in some disarray since the Peasants’ Revolt . What remained was the Tudor gateway built only shortly before Henry VIII started his ‘reforms’. The gateway we were told was used in a variety of ways after the Hospitallers dispersed – Henry kept his hunting gear here – so a kind of shed – while part of the Chapter House was turned into the Office of the Master of Revels, otherwise known as the censor who cast his eyes over Shakepeare’s plays before they were performed. Richard Hogarth opened a coffee shop here but as the ‘gimmick’ was Latin only to be spoken he did not do well, though of course his son William fared better at his chosen field of drawing and prints. For a while the gateway hosted the ‘Jerusalem Tavern’ probably frequented by Dickens and later still it became the parish watch House.

By the mid-19th Century the ‘brand’ was re-established, resurrected even by those sort of Victorians who liked clubs and dressing up but the new British chivalric order has no organisational link with the surviving Hospitallers in Rome, being both non-religious and non-military,  though maintaining the emblematic cross that has been its insignia since the Mediterranean years.  Rather like the stars of the European Union flag the eight points of the equilateral cross represented the different langues or languages spoken round the Mediterranean and further north, where the Hospitallers operated.

The interiors of the building, where the tour goes, are on the whole late Victorian /Arts & Crafts refurbishments of the Tudor exterior so there a lot of emblematic Whitefriars Stained Glass
with the Arms of notable ‘knights’ and the various insignia of the Order – the Cross, the shell for the Pilgrims, the Tudor Rose and the Hypericum – otherwise known as St John’s wort and used then and now (CAUTION advised) as an anti-depressant amongst other things. We usually have the Hidcote variety in our gardens and parks and very jolly it is too.

We had to scoot through the main Chapter Hall (where there was a meeting in progress), which looked very like an ‘old school or college’ dining hall, but could linger in the smaller meeting rooms above the Arch. As ever in these institutions the stairs are lined with portraits of benefactors, worthies etc.

The most interesting room is the Malta room so called because of the large (very dark so not easily reproduced) picture of Valletta harbour named after the admirable admiral Jean Valet who managed to defend Malta against the Turks in a long siege. There are some wonderful Iznik tiles (presumably from the Order’s time in Cyprus or Rhodes) and a Pietra Dura table. The rent for the Order to stay on in Malta was one fully trained Maltese Falcon per year, payable to the Holy Roman Emperor. By this time the order, never deeply spiritual, had branched out into what you might call trade and ‘luxury goods’ exchange round the Mediterranean. The table depicts the lesser pigeon but we all know what a Maltese Falcon looks like thanks to Humphrey Bogart. Spiral stairs lead back down from the Gateway rooms.

Susan, our very knowledgeable guide then stood us in the street to help us orientate ourselves not only to the rooms we had visited in sequence but to the extent the Priory lands had occupied.

The Priory Church, already damaged, was badly bombed – this map gives you an idea of the extent of the Estate, and why Priors were not merely religious figureheads but also important local people with power..
We walked across both the Clerkenwell Road and St John’s Square, where the original outline of the round nave (based on the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem) is marked in cobbles, and into the church.

Seely & Paget were chosen to rebuild the very war-damaged church and the result is a square airy modernist space – it has neither vicar nor parish so is mainly used for ‘events’ and came as something of an anti-climax after the long history.
The entrance to the small complex (and garden) was done by the Docwra  firm, whose lorries we see digging up roads round London but whose links with the Order of St John  go as far back as the Prior responsible for building  the Tudor gate!     

The crypt offers a bit more atmosphere (and authentic damp underground smell) and two interesting tombs – one of an unidentified Spanish knight of St John carved in alabaster complete with lion and page, imported from the cathedral in Valladolid, the other from the tomb of  the last Prior, William Weston, depicted as a skeletal effigy to remind us all that death is the great leveller.

We did however greatly appreciate the peaceful St John’s garden – a modern evocation of a cloister so with a range of medicinal plants but also with Mediterranean planting to link back to the  900 year old  origins of the St John’s Foundation.  The Museum will give you the range of the Foundation’s history and geography through a range of boards, maps and key exhibits but the tour will give you a greater understanding and detail of a unique London visit.

No comments:

Post a Comment