#Valletta2018, Collection Highlights

A Pilgrim Badge

Museum of the Order of St John Barbara Packard, Collections Volunteer

Brief History of Pilgrimage

Pilgrimage, undertaking a journey to a place of special significance, has a very long history. It has significance in many religions and cultures.

Christian pilgrimage came to the fore in the early fourth century with the conversion of the Emperor Constantine to Christianity in 313. The Emperor brought ideas of sacred places and sacred buildings, derived from Roman and Greek pagan religion, to his new faith. Constantine’s mother Helena presided over the ‘recovery’ of a number of important Christian sites in Palestine, while the Emperor set in motion an extensive building programme in the area. Great churches were built on the site of the ‘re-discovered’ tomb of Christ, on the Mount of Olives and in Bethlehem. As a result,  a ‘Holy Land’ emerged, establishing a new sacred geography, which provided a new, and more physical, spiritual experience.

The development of the cult of the saints was a key aspect in the expansion of place-orientated pilgrimage. It was the perceived presence of the saints, through the physical remains of their relics, that attracted pilgrims and helped to establish a new sacred geography. This was extended across Christendom, as relics were transferred from one place to another and new local saints emerged.

Pilgrims often travelled a long way, sometimes on foot, to visit a saint’s shrine. Reasons for undertaking a pilgrimage varied, with some pilgrims desiring to be close to the remains of their favourite saint, while others hoped for miraculous cures or sought forgiveness for sins. Pilgrimage continues today, although it is sometimes difficult to distinguish pilgrimage and tourism as pilgrimage can have both secular and spiritual motivations.


Tradition of Pilgrim Badges

Pilgrim badges usually show an image appropriate to the pilgrimage destination, often including the shrine itself, or a famous image of the saint, their attribute, or a scene from their life.

People wore these badges or pendants attached to their clothes or hats or around the neck to show where they had been on pilgrimage. The badges also acted as a type of souvenir from the shrine and a reminder of the journey. Pilgrim badges were originally cheaply mass-produced by die-stamping or in moulds so that everyone could afford them. Their use flourished in the Middle Ages in Europe, particularly in the 14th and 15th centuries, but declined after the Protestant Reformation of the mid-16th century.

The pilgrim badge distributed to those attending the 1926 pilgrimage was made from bronze. It shows the head of St. John the Baptist on a dish, with a cross on the reverse and loop at the top for attachment. It was intended as a souvenir for holy sites in Malta, probably in particular for the Church of St John the Baptist – or St John’s Co-Cathedral – in Valletta. This church, completed in 1577, houses, among other significant works of art, the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist by Caravaggio (1571-1610).

a silver pendant depicting the head of St John the Baptist on a plate, with a loop to suspend the pendant from at the top


The 1926 Pilgrimage

In 1926, the Order of St John organised a pilgrimage to the historic homes of the Hospitallers, with an emphasis on visiting the Opthalmic Hospital in Jerusalem. One of the purposes of the expedition was to take some of the latest devices of ophthalmic surgery to this hospital. The pilgrimage also intended to celebrate the Order’s new Royal Charter, and a special investiture was arranged in Malta.

The Royal Charter of King George V gave the Order the title of ‘Venerable’, so that the full title of the Order was now ‘The Grand Priory in the British Realm of the Venerable Order of the Hospital of St. John of Jerusalem’.

The pilgrimage was reported in the press, with several newspapers of the time – including the Evening Standard, The Daily Chronicle and the Belfast Telegraph –  stating, with some hyperbole, that ‘the glories of the Crusades will be recalled…’ when 100 Knights and Ladies of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem made a pilgrimage to some of the ancient strongholds of the Order.

105 officials and members of the Order took part in the Pilgrimage, setting off from Venice 7th March 1926, and reaching Jerusalem a week later. The pilgrims travelled from the Holy Land to Cyprus, where the Order had found refuge following the loss of the Holy Land in 1291, and from there to Rhodes. The Order had been headquartered at Rhodes from 1309 – 1522. The pilgrimage concluded with a visit to Malta and the city of Valetta, built by Grand Master de Valette after the siege of 1565.

The pilgrimage was also referred to as the ‘Crusade of the White Cross’. Newspaper cuttings of the time, however, reveal that there was not universal support for the proposed pilgrimage, and there was even a campaign against it. The Catholic News stated that, as a new Protestant Order, the English Order of St John could not claim its ancestry from the medieval knights, and its attempts to do so were an ‘outrageous travesty’. Particularly vociferous against the Order and the pilgrimage was a faction of Catholic Maltese, who claimed that the ‘English Protestant’ Order had usurped the name of the true Catholic Order of Malta, which had its headquarters in Rome. In fact the pilgrimage seems to have stirred up something of a political firestorm in Malta, with the media fanning the flames. The Daily Malta Chronicle, however, reported that ‘From the very moment that the announcement was made that a distinguished and representative party of the members of the Order of St John of Jerusalem in England were to visit Malta… a sedulous attempt to poison public opinion against the proposed visit was started by the anti-British and pro-Italian propagandists on the Island.’ Nevertheless, the pilgrimage and visit to Malta went ahead, culminating in an Investiture Ceremony in the stately Throne Room of the Grand Master’s palace, now known as the Hall of St Michael and St George.


Investiture at Malta




The Pilgrimage concluded in Malta with a special investiture to welcome new members in the Grand Master’s palace in Valetta. Among others, the Sub-Prior invested the Governor of Malta with the insignia of the Order of St John. The scene was the subject of a painting by Edward Caruana Dingli (1876-1950), a celebrated Maltese artist born in Valletta. This painting now hangs in the Priory Church in St John’s Square. Dingli himself was also given the title Honorary Knight of Grace of the Venerable Order of St John of Jerusalem, at the ceremony, for a number of works he painted for St John’s Gate, Clerkenwell. He was later commissioned by the Order to paint a portrait of King George V. The portrait was a great success, and well received by the king himself, which led to further commissions to paint other members of the British monarchy. Dingli’s painting of the investiture was a more public commemoration of the pilgrimage, while the little bronze badges were a more personal souvenir of the journey undertaken.

Latest blog posts