Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Heritage Spotlight : Hospitable History Launch

Tonight in London the 2015 LGBT History Month UK is having its official launch. The venue for the event is the Museum of the Order of St. John in Clerkenwell. My brother and I visited this museum last year on our annual gallery-crawl around London. It’s a marvellous little gem and well worth a visit. It is housed in a magnificent medieval building (the photo below is of the archway next to the museum’s entrance).

The Order of St. John is known worldwide for its humanitarian and healthcare work since the 11th century, but the museum is a relatively new addition to London’s heritage, first opening in the 1970s and being refurbished in 2010.

The Order has often been confused with those other great medieval orders of religious knights, the Templars, though their history has as much intrigue and mystery surrounding it, without having the modern baggage of paranoid conspiracy theories attached to it.

The Order has many branches and organisation in countries around the world with its spiritual base in Rome. The UK Order is affiliated to, but not governed from, Rome. Today the Order of St. John is most well-known for it’s medical division, the St. John Ambulance.

Over the centuries the order has appointed many knights (and dames, in more recent centuries), and the UK’s Order of St. John established by Queen Victoria in 1888 carries on this tradition. The St. John knighthoods and dames are a chivalric order of the Crown, not the State, so recipients of these honours do not use the title Sir or Dame.

I imagine that there have been many lgbt recipients of these honours (a possible subject for a future article). The only Knight of St. John of the UK Order that immediately springs to mind is William Lygon, 7th Earl Beauchamp, Governor of New South Wales 1899-1901.

Perhaps the biggest attraction to the Museum of St. John from an lgbt aspect is a painting by Caravaggio called “The Cardsharps”. This painting is from the private collection of Sir Dennis Mahon and is on loan. This is one of two versions (most painters made copies of their work). Sir Denis bought the painting in 2006 at Sotheby’s for £50,400. It was attributed to a “follower of Caravaggio”. Sir Denis, a renowned art scholar, initiated exhaustive scientific analysis and a year later announced it was an original Caravaggio worth £50 million!

“The Cardsharps” (both paintings) were commissioned in 1595 by Cardinal Francesco del Monte, one of the greatest art collector and patrons of his age. “The Cardsharps” were amongst the first of Caravaggio’s works done for the Cardinal over a number of years. During this time the painter was given lodgings and a pension by his patron.

Cardinal del Monte has, like Caravaggio himself, been admitted into lgbt history through records of his interest in young men and boys. It may even be possible that Caravaggio got his patronage from del Monte because the cardinal fancied him! (Caravaggio was 24 in 1595 and the Cardinal was 46.) Whatever the reason, Caravaggio arrived at the Cardinal’s palace with a young friend in tow, another painter called Mario Minniti, with whom he shared his lodgings in the Palace. Minniti left to get married in 1600. Caravaggio began to earn a reputation as a “boy-chaser”.

Through Cardinal del Monte’s patronage Caravaggio received commissions from other important religious and political figures. Soon he became the most famous and sought-after painter of his generation. He became a star of the Baroque period – a Baroque Star! And he had the temperament to match, though instead of throwing televisions out of windows or smashing guitars on stage Caravaggio picked fights with people who upset him. He appeared in court several times for assault, and some historians believed his temper was caused by inhalation of noxious fumes given off by some of the highly poisonous paints painters used in his time.

But I’m digressing. Let’s get back to Caravaggio and the Order of St. John.

In 1606 Caravaggio’s temper flared up over a racquet game and he killed a man in a drawl over the match. Murder? Manslaughter? Accidental? Who knows? The outcome was that Caravaggio ran in fear of arrest and travelled around Italy. News travelled slowly in those, days, so he was able to stay of the authorities and paint in several places before deciding to head for Malta, home base at that time of the Order of St. John (hence the knights are also called the Order of Malta).

Caravaggio arrived on the island in 1608 and was treated like a celebrity, the Order seemingly unaware he had caused a man’s death. He painted several important works here, including “The Beheading of St. John the Baptist”. The knights of the Order queued up to have their portraits painted by him. He was held in such high regard that they invested him as a full Knight of Magistral Obedience of the Order of St. John.

Despite finding this refuge from his violent past Caravaggio could not suppress his temper. There appears to have been some argument with another knight, probably violent in nature, and Caravaggio was flung into jail. He managed to escape and went on the run again, eventually ending up living with his old friend Minniti.

Caravaggio died at the age of 39, probably of malaria or pneumonia. One historian recently (2012) suggested he was in fact murdered on the orders of the Order of Malta, or at least by one of their knights. He even suggested that Caravaggio’s body was thrown into the sea and was lost forever, despite the fact that two years before he came up with this theory Caravaggio’s remains were identified (using family DNA, as in the case of King Richard III earlier this year) at Port Ecole near Naples.

Caravaggio’s “The Cardsharps” presents visitors to the Museum of St. John with a very rare opportunity to get close to a lost masterpiece of 16th century art.

With next year’s LGBT History Month having no central theme, apart from the overall title of “Coded Lives”, I won’t be having one either. Instead I’ll be putting together a continuous series of articles called “Around the World in 80 Gays”.

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