Tucked away in a corner of Clerkenwell between Victorian apartments and modern offices, stands the 16th-century St John’s Gate, now part of the Museum of the Order of St John. During one of the regular guided tours of the museum, we were amazed to discover that the little-known historical home of the Order and St Johns Ambulance was also the new home of a long-forgotten Caravaggio painting. We spoke to the museum’s curator Tom Foakes about how an important piece of Baroque art has ended up on the walls of a small Clerkenwell museum.
Hi Tom, what can you tell Londonist about the Museum of St John’s latest loan?
The Museum has recently been loaned Caravaggio’s The Cardsharps. This is very exciting for the Museum for a number of reasons. The painting is from a private collection, and this is the first time that the painting has been put on long-term display. As the Museum of the Order of St John is free, it is now available for all to see. Caravaggio had a very close relationship to the Order, having fled to their Island home on Malta, where he was commissioned to paint the altarpieces – The Beheading of John the Baptist, and St Jerome Writing – which are both on display in St John’s Co-Cathedral, Valletta.
Our guide told us the painting is an earlier version of one that disappeared for almost 100 years and was not known to have a duplicate copy. The history of these paintings sounds interesting, if not mysterious…
The painting of The Cardsharps was commissioned by Cardinal Francesco del Monte in Rome in 1595. The work became an immediate sensation due to the artist’s revolutionary style and the immediacy of the composition. The history of the painting is very well documented up to the 19th century, when it disappeared from art historical records. In 1985 the scholar and collector Sir Denis Mahon rediscovered the picture. His identification of it as Caravaggio’s original was universally accepted and the painting was then purchased by the Kimbell Art Museum, Texas. In 2006, Sir Denis identified another version of The Cardsharps, virtually identical to the Kimbell picture, now on display here. After exhaustive study and scientific analysis, Sir Denis concluded that this was an earlier version, also painted for Cardinal del Monte, and this attribution was supported by leading Caravaggio scholars.
How has The Cardsharps ended up at the Museum of the Order of St John?
The Museum was approached by the owner of the painting, as they felt that the Museum was a most appropriate home. The Museum explores the history of the Order from its foundations in Jerusalem, through its role in the Crusades and its retreat first to Cyprus, then to Rhodes and Malta; and finally its re-foundation in England in the 19th century as an Order of Chivalry, from which the first aid charity St John Ambulance was founded. The lender felt that it was important for the painting to be seen by the public, and as Caravaggio is such an important figure in the narrative of the history of the Order, the Museum is a perfect location in which the panting may be seen within the context of the Order of St John’s 900 year history.
The loan of this painting appears to be a recent event in Caravaggio’s relationship with the Order of St John. Can you tell us more about the Order’s role in his notorious life?
Caravaggio is an outstanding figure in the history of the Order of St John and in Western art. Accused of murder in 1606, he fled Rome and sought refuge on Malta where his artistic reputation secured him admission as a Knight of the Order. Whilst under the Order’s patronage, Caravaggio produced two spectacular altar paintings, as well as portraits of prominent Knights. After an altercation with a fellow Knight, Caravaggio was imprisoned by the Order until he again escaped, fleeing to Sicily, then Naples. He died in 1610, on his way to Rome to seek a Papal pardon.
The Order of St John can therefore be seen as holding an integral role in nurturing Caravaggio’s talent, and perhaps his demise?
Certainly the Order provided Caravaggio with great commissions, although his artistic reputation preceded him. It was his undisputed talent that perhaps persuaded the Order to overlook the controversy and violence that punctuated his eventful, yet brief, life.
Apart from The Cardsharps, what other gems does the Museum of the Order of St John have to offer?
The Museum has an embarrassment of riches! Its collections include first-hand accounts of the Siege of Rhodes written by two French brothers, who travelled to the island to join the Order, a cannon given to the Knights by Henry VIII, and modern pieces relating to the role of St John Ambulance in the First and Second World Wars. St John’s Gate, the home of the Museum is also an exhibit – a fine Tudor structure built not long before the Priory was dissolved by Henry VIII in 1542. It then became the office for the Master of the Revels, who licensed public entertainments in London; so it was here that Shakespeare’s plays were cleared for performance. Later it was the childhood home of painter William Hogarth, whose father ran a coffee-house in the Gate, and after that it housed The Gentleman’s Magazine for which Dr Johnson worked. Eventually it became a pub, the Old Jerusalem Tavern, and it was this that the revived Order was able to buy and re-establish as their headquarters.
By Joe Carroll