Full page illustrations of the Crucifixion and God the Father.
Books, Manuscripts

The Rhodes Missal

Illuminated manuscript
353mm x 260mm x 75mm (closed)

‘Un missale belissimo e miniato’ – ‘A very beautiful illuminated manuscript’

So Giacomo Bosio, a 16th-century Order historian, described the Rhodes Missal, one of the most famous treasures in the Museum’s collection. Hand-written and illustrated over 500 years ago, it would have taken pride of place on the altar of the Order’s Church in Rhodes. The Missal had been gifted to the Order by one of its Priors in France as a demonstration of his piety and wealth and it was so highly regarded it is thought that the knights took their vows of allegiance on it. Since its acquisition by the Museum, it has been displayed at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Chateau de Versailles in France, amongst other places.

The Missal is a bound manuscript, which simply means a hand-written book, a little bigger than A4 size. It has 108 vellum (calf skin) pages, making it a good 5cm thick. It is an order of service for a Catholic mass, and contains the chants, prayers and readings that, at the time it was made in the 16th century, would have been performed in Latin. The Missal has two main parts: the first part is called the Ordinary and contains the sacred words for the consecration of the bread and wine, which are used throughout the year. The second part is called the Proper and contains the wording for celebrating particular festivals. All the Proper Masses include the prayer “Pro navigantibus” – “For those at sea”, appropriate for an island-based military Order which had become a formidable force in the Mediterranean.

In the 16th century, the Order had its headquarters on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, with priories all over Western Europe. In 1503, Amaury d’Amboise, the Grand Prior of France, was elected Grand Master of the Order, which meant leaving France and taking up residency on Rhodes. He didn’t leave France until the year following his election, 1504. He broke his journey at Arles, near Marseille, and while he was there, Charles Aleman de Rochechenard, the Prior of St Gilles in France, took the opportunity to present the new Grand Master with a number of gifts to take with him to the Church of St John in Rhodes, and amongst these gifts was the Rhodes Missal.

This Missal was made in France, but it is not known to which artist or school it belongs. By the time it was made, printed books were already being made in Europe and so the demand for handwritten books was steadily diminishing. However, wealthy and educated patrons such as Rochechenard still commissioned manuscripts made in the traditional way as lavish presentation pieces to adorn the high altar of a church or to commemorate a special occasion. Rochechenard gave the Missal to the Order as a demonstration of both his piety and his wealth. His coat of arms is incorporated into the decorative borders of the Missal to ensure that his worldly importance and magnificence wouldn’t be forgotten. He may well have hoped that in this way people would pray for him after death and hasten his journey through purgatory to heaven.

An historiated letter T depicting the elevation of the host during a Roman Catholic mass.
Julian Calder 2019

The manuscript was illuminated, or illustrated, with vibrant images using green, blue, red and even gold paint. There are 28 hand-drawn illustrations charting the stories of the Gospels, of the life of Jesus Christ, which are marked by Christian festivals throughout the year. The Rhodes Missal was made towards the end of the medieval period, at the time of the Renaissance, when people looked to revive and surpass the ideas and achievements of Ancient Greece and Rome. The Missal shows Renaissance influence in the use of classical architectural motifs in the framing of the miniatures. The Shepherds in the Fields, The Nativity and The Adoration of the Shepherds are all set in Renaissance backdrops, with classically inspired interiors and landscapes scattered with romanticised castles, that would have been familiar to Knights of St John in the 1500s. Looking at the Adoration of the Shepherd’s there is, and I quote from Eustace Alliott who wrote a well-respected commentary about the Missal, “a liveliness and charm about this miniature which causes it to stand out among the others. Maybe it is from the Master of the atelier [or workshop]. The landscape background is the finest in the Missal.”

An illustration of a lion, with a snail in place of hind legs, crawling towards the arms of the Order.Most of the text is written in black, but red is used for titles, emphasis and to highlight more important festivals or sections of text. The first letters of sections are historiated, meaning that they contain a story, an image, such as this T which begins a prayer. The image the Elevation of the Host, the point in the mass when the priest raises the newly consecrated Body of Christ above his head for the congregation to see. The borders of the Missal are decorated with flowers, fruit, birds and heraldic beasts. On the last page of the Missal there is a grotesque, the only one in the whole manuscript. It makes a mockery of the lion from de Rochechenard’s Coat of Arms as in place of hind legs and tail it has a snail crawling towards the arms of the Order. We can’t know whether an unhappy illuminator took the risk of sneaking this in to show is displeasure, or whether de Rochechenard approved of this satire.

So, what has been the life of this beautiful book? It would have taken pride of place on the altar of the Church of St John in Rhodes. Although it was in fact one of the cheaper gifts that Rochechanard gave – at the same time in 1504 he also gave three gold statues – it became one of the most esteemed. Indeed it may well have been on this very book that the knights took their vows of allegiance to the Order, as shown in this illustration from a 17th century manuscript (Profession des Chevaliers de S. Jean de Hierusalem) which describes the ceremony of joining the Order.

Illustration of a knight kneeling with his hand on a book.
H2. MOSJ/ Matt Spour 2021

When the Order retreated from Rhodes in 1522, following their defeat by the forces of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent, Ruler of the Ottoman Empire, the Knights took the Rhodes Missal with them on their journey across the Mediterranean, to their new home on the island of Malta, where they arrived in 1530.

Over two hundred years later, in 1798, Emperor Napoleon invaded Malta, forcing the Order to leave. This time, the Order lost not only its home, but also its treasures. We don’t know not what became of the Rhodes Missal for the following 130 years, until, in 1929, it resurfaced in the hands of a publisher and antiquarian bookseller based in Florence, by the name of Leo Olschki, who asked the Museum if it would like to purchase it. The substantial sum demanded – £1500 – required a significant fundraising effort. Nearly 150 members of the Order donated money to allow the Museum to buy it. Such was the significance of the acquisition, it was exhibited at the Victoria & Albert Museum in Kensington that year, and has also been exhibited at the Chateau de Versailles and in Malta’s capital, Valetta, as well as of course in this Museum.

Further reading: Alliott, E, The Rhodes Missal: A Commentary (London, 1980)

If you would like more information on the Rhodes Missal, or other objects in the Museum’s medieval collections, you can search for more on the Bearers of the Cross website.


The Museum of the Order of St John would like to thank all those who have supported and continue to support its work. In particular, the Museum would like to thank the following for their generosity: