History, Volunteering, Collection Highlights

Memories of Constantine the Great in Jean de Valette’s Maltese Coinage

Museum of the Order of St John Jack Hanson, Collections Volunteer

Jack Hanson is an undergraduate at Queen Mary, University of London, about to start his dissertation on the Third Crusade. He has been volunteering at the Museum on a British Numismatic Society Bursary.

At first glance, a particular design of coin minted by Jean de Valette (r.1557-1568) appears to be nearly devoid of symbolism. The coin has a large eight-pointed Maltese Cross, with a simple Latin inscription around the edge. Crosses appear frequently on Order coinage. However, it is the inscription which lends context to the symbolism of the coin. The Latin reads “SVB HOC SIGNO MILITAMUS”, which translates as “Under this sign, fight.” Although this may seem a generic statement of Christian holy war, it is an important classical reference to an extremely symbolic event in the history of both Europe and Christianity. It is a reminder of the victory for Constantine the Great’s forces at the battle of Milvian Bridge, and the gradual conversion of the Roman Empire to Christianity.

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LDOSJ M6/12 and M6/16 Two silver coins minted by Jean de Valette ©Museum of the Order of St John, London/Jack Hanson 2017

Constantine (b.c.272 CE, r.306 – 337 CE.) ordered the use of Christian symbols on his army’s shields and standards, allegedly following seeing a vision of Christ suggesting their use. The battle was against Maxentius for sole control of the Roman Empire. The story of Constantine’s vision and conversion, as relayed by the Greek historian Eusubius of Caesarea, formed the basis for the fusion of the Roman Imperial ideology with fledgling Christianity. Constantine attributed his victory to his use of Christian symbols, and began to favour the Christian God and religion over that of Sol Invictus. Although the Emperor was only baptised on his deathbed, Christianity began to be favoured as the official religion of the Roman Empire.

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Dream of Constantine and battle of the Milvian Bridge, Bibliothèque Nationale de France, Wikipedia Commons

The story was easily interpreted by the Order of St. John as a metaphor for their survival of the siege of Malta, and the victory of Christianity over ‘paganism’. Christians and Muslims alike had used the slur of ‘pagan’, which actually means country-dweller, against each other since the two sides had first made war. The Order had survived frequent attacks from the Ottoman Empire. Yet, the loss of Rhodes in 1522, the surrender of Tripoli in 1551, coupled with the invasion of Malta by Ottoman troops in 1565, would have been in very recent memory. The strong imagery of a Christian ‘Emperor’ fighting ‘pagan’ usurpers suited the military and polital ends of the Order.  The increasing inroads that the Ottomans were making into Europe must have made the metaphor of Christian conquest highly appealing.

Although modern scholars doubt the validity of the story of Constantine’s conversion, it was held to be fact at the time these coins were minted. The cultural memory of this event had provided Christianity with the backing of the Roman Empire. There is a large painting of the battle inside the Apostolic palace, in the Vatican. It was painted between 1520 and 1524 by Giulio Romano, a student of Raphael. Therefore, the story of Constantine’s conversion was well remembered in the sixteenth century by the papacy and its associates.

Furthermore, the Order was residing in Malta at the permission of the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V. The Holy Roman Empire was an attempt to evoke a sense of the classical Roman past.  The right to mint coins was closely guarded by monarchs, and Charles V had only recently given his grudging ascent to minting coins in Malta, as they had done in Rhodes. The link between the Order and the classical and modern Roman Empire gave the order an enormous amount of legitimacy. The memory of Constantine’s victory was deliberately used by the Order to evoke a sense of a classical past and give validity to the notion of Christian holy war.

This is not the only link between the Order of St. John and Constantine the Great. A reliquary holding the right hand of Saint John the Baptist, which was owned by the Order in Malta, had allegedly previously belonged to the first Christian Emperor. This had been acquired by the Order after the siege of Rhodes in 1484. Sultan Bayezid II offered it to the Order as part of a peace treaty. This reliquary tied together the first Christian Emperor and the patron Saint of the Order.  The relic is now held in the Monastery Church of Cetinje, Montenegro. Following the fall of Malta to Napoleon, the relic was transferred to Russia and remained the property of the Romanov Tsars. Following the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, the relic was removed from the country, and after travelling around Europe, ended up in Montenegro.

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LDOSJ M6/36 A copper coin minted by Valette. The symbols between the arms of the cross are Valette’s initials, being short for Fra (brother) Iohannes De Valette. This linked him to the symbolism of the cross as a sign of conquest. ©Museum of the Order of St John, London/Jack Hanson 2017

Although Valette was not the innovator of the use of the Maltese Cross on coinage, he was the first to use it on a wide range and on high denomination coins. The Maltese Cross and the use of the metaphor of Constantine’s victory appears on both silver and copper coinage minted during Valette’s time as Grand Master. However, it appears most often on the coins minted in copper, which were minted as an emergency measure during the siege of Malta. The use of the imagery of Christian victory and the concurrence of these events is no accident. The link between the cross and the struggle against the Ottomans originates with Valette.

The story was easily used by the Order of St. John as a metaphor for the victory of Christianity over ‘paganism’ (or Islam), and legitimate rule versus usurpation. The ideology espoused on these coins links Valette with the establishment of Christianity throughout the Roman Empire, and victory over their enemies.

 

Bibliography

Richard Cavendish, The Battle of Milvian Bridge, History Today, Volume 62, Issue 10, October 2012,  (https://www.historytoday.com/richard-cavendish/battle-milvian-bridge)

Maltese History and Heritage, Maltese Currency History, Brief History of Coinage in Malta, The Coinage of Malta

Joe Cribb, Barrie Cook and Ian Carradice, The Coin Atlas, A Comprehensive View of the Coins of the World Throughout History, Little, Brown and Company, 1999.

Michael Sant, Melita Historica, A Scientific Review of Maltese History, The First Minting of Fiduciary Copper Coinage in Malta: 1565 or 1566?, 1971.

Jonathan Riley-Smith, Hospitallers,  The History of the Order of St John, London and Rio Grande, The Hambledon Press, 1999.

 

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