‘Afflictis spes mea rebus’
‘In my misfortune, you are my hope’
When the Knights emigrated from Cyprus to Rhodes, upon the Island, south west of the town of Trianda and upon a hill named Ialisos, they discovered the Chapel of Our Lady of Philermos. The ancient story associated with this chapel, was of a man who in his despair had ascended the hill to commit suicide at the ruins of the Phoenician temple of the sun. Our Lady appeared and with her gentle smile convinced the man otherwise and he repented. The temple ruins of the sun god were cleared and in its stead, a chapel dedicated to Our Lady was erected in remembrance of the event. Within the chapel a miraculous Icon said to have originated from Jerusalem, was placed. The Icon of Our Lady of Philermos was therefore placed upon the site which once was a solar temple. Coincidentally, the feast day dedicated to the Order’s founder, Blessed Gerard, occurs on October 13, the day commemorating the last apparition of Our Lady at Fatima and the day of the solar miracle. Our Lady replaces our despair with hope.
The Icon of Our Lady of Philermos is a work claimed to be the authorship of Saint Luke and possibly originally kept in the Church and Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Trullo, Constantinople. A magisterial bull of 1497, states that the Icon of Philermos had miraculously reached the shores of Rhodes, from Constantinople during the eight century, the times of the heretical Emperor Leo III the Iconoclast. On arriving in Rhodes, the Order found the Icon placed within a shrine in the forests upon Ialisos Hill. Miracles were attributed to the intercession of Our Lady of Philermos and the population venerated her much. Documents pertaining to the year 1396, reveal that Our Lady of Philermos was invoked in times of calamity. In 1480, the vice-chancellor of the Order, Guillaume Caorsin, pointed out that the Order of Saint John attributed their victory in the siege of Rhodes, to Our Lady of Philermos. Grandmaster Fra Pierre d’Aubusson had a particular personal devotion to the Icon and prayed before the Image after each battle of 1480. As mentioned earlier, the Virgin and the saints had appeared to the invading hordes putting them to flight. A large banner, depicting the Crucifix, the Blessed Virgin and John the Baptist, was hoisted over the breached section in the walls, the site where the miraculous apparition of Our Lady occurred. The Icon of Philermos survived the destruction of Saint Mark’s Church, within which it was placed. Following this event, the Grandmaster renovated the shrine. Due to the Siege of 1480, the Icon classified as a ‘Hodegitria,’ was also considered as a miraculous Icon of the kind ‘Madonna of Victories.’
The Icon had by now become part of the Knights’ religious lives, and was not left upon Rhodes during Ottoman occupation. In 1536, Fra Aurelio Borrigello, the Prior of Pisa returned from a successful campaign against the Ottomans within the Tripolitanian waters. With great pomp he deposited the captured enemy flags, military banners and standards on the altar of Our Lady of Philermos in Saint Lawrence Church Birgu, Malta. During the Great Siege of 1565, a white dove was seen hovering above the church, on the eve of the Feast of the Assumption (15 August). Amongst the heavy bombardment of the day, this event was interpreted as a heavenly sign of victory against the Ottoman Turks. As during the siege, the Church of Saint Lawrence was gutted, for a third time the Icon miraculously survived the destruction of a church within which it was placed. Following the siege of 1565, the Feast of Our Lady of Philermos had a newly acquired title ‘the Madonna of Victories’ and a new special liturgy was instituted on May 6, 1566. This solemnity was to be celebrated ‘in perpetuity’ throughout all the Order’s churches. The new City of Valletta, founded on March 28, 1566, built on the outcrop of land which was washed with the blood of many thousand of the Order’s enemies, had as its first building, a church dedicated to Our Lady of Victories. The Icon of Philermos was placed within. During the Feast of September 8, 1565, the standard of the Hospital and the captured trophies of the siege of 1565, were paraded in the conventual church during pontifical High Mass. The gifts Philip II had presented to the Grandmaster (gold poniard and gem encrusted sword), were presented in solemn offering to the Madonna of Philermos and the Grandmaster declared that the merit for the Order’s victory, exclusively belonged to Our Lady’s miraculous intervention and protection, not to himself nor his valor. Philip II’s gifts were kept in the treasury and brought out each year for the Feast of Our Lady of Victory. Upon the sword was engraved the device ‘Plus Quam Valor Valette’ or ‘Greater than valor is La Valette.’ Within the conventual church, the Grandmaster presided over the solemn celebration from his throne and whilst chanting the Holy Gospel would hold the sword and poniard in his hands. After Holy Mass the standard of the Order, the sword and poniard together with other insignia and standards were paraded through the streets. The procession ending at the Church of Our Lady of Victories, the Grandmaster personally carried an Icon of Our Lady, representing the Icon of Philermos. The Feast was especially celebrated with great pomp on the anniversary centenaries of 1665 and 1765. An account of the 1765 anniversary reveals, how twenty four candle sticks rather than twelve were lit before the Icon of Philermos, the incense, the burning tapers and the scent of flowers entering the church from the enveloping gardens, created an atmosphere which the writer described as ‘heavenly.’
In 1602, a squadron of galleys belonging to the Hospital, raided the Ottoman fortresses of Mahometta, Lepanto and Passava. The raids acquired much grain for Malta. The captured forts’ keys were hung on the wall of the Chapel of Our Lady of Philermos; two silver plaques commemorate the event and can still be seen in the Chapel at the Co-Cathedral of Saint John in Valletta, Malta. The silver plaques placed by Grandmaster Wignacourt re-affirm the successes attributed to the heavenly intercession of Our Lady. This affirmation was evidenced by the naming of several ships and galleys belonging to the Order to Our Lady. The Order kept the relics of the Saints on public view for veneration and many a visitor described what they witnessed. In 1697, the Russian diplomat and ancestor of the famous Russian writer Tolstoy, Pyotr Tolstoy wrote: “The holy right arm of the Baptist from the elbow to the fingers, is all covered in gold…. And thus I was able to kiss that holy hand.”(1) Tolstoy couldn’t remotely imagine that the relic of Saint John, which he described, would, together with the Icon of Our Lady of Philermos, be translated to Russia. While Tolstoy said these words in Malta, his descendent would write his books in defense of the ‘god of reason,’ as opposed to the Christian God, who was now being set aside in preparation for the Russian Revolution headed by the Bolsheviks.
General Napoleon Bonaparte set his eyes upon the Maltese Islands, where the Knights of Saint John lived lavishly, their monastic ways now long forgotten. The Order did not offer much resistance in defense of the Islands and Napoleon conquered it en route towards Ottoman Egypt. The reason for the Knight’s inactivity, was that the Grandmaster wished not rely on his decadent Knights, who had neither the spiritual nor the military power to oppose Napoleon. The Grandmaster reasoned that diplomacy was the solution. Apart from this fact, today the Masonic Grand Lodge of Malta, states that many Knights of the Order of Saint John were in the eighteenth century fellow Brothers of the new Order of Masonry. Therefore, one can easily understand that the annexation of the Order of Saint John from the Islands, came as a chastisement. Similarly to the Templars before them, the Knights of Saint John had now committed public apostasy. In 1798, the French occupied Malta and dispossessed the Order, the last Grandmaster to rule was Ferdinand von Hompesch (1797-1798).
On Thursday June 12, 1798, on arriving in Malta upon the Orient, Napoleon was received by the Grandmaster’s carriage. The horses halted mid way towards the palace, a slight earth tremor had scared the beasts. Undeterred, Napoleon made his way on foot through the streets of Valletta. The Grandmaster refused to sign his offer, the French General then ordered all the Knights (including the French) to leave the Island. Grandmaster Hompesch requested General Bonaparte’s permission that together with his Order, he could remove the Icon of Philermos, the relic arm of Saint John the Baptist and a relic of the True Cross. Napoleon granted these concessions on the premise that precious religious objects were to be stripped off their valuable stones, silver and gold. The archives of the Order remained on the island and thankfully, were later saved from the destructive ‘sons of the revolution’ of France. On June 17, 1798, Grandmaster Hompesch left Malta and departed for Trieste, Italy. The Maltese population would later invite the Grandmaster back, however the English prevented such a move. Due to international pressure placed upon Hompesch, by the Czar of Russia and the Austrian Emperor, the Grandmaster abdicated. To the Czar in Russia, Hompesch sent a letter explaining the reasons for abdicating, and a plea for the Czar to protect Christianity. Together with the letter, he sent the Icon of Philermos and the relic arm of Saint John the Baptist. On October 12, 1799, during the reign of Emperor Paul I, the relics were removed to a Russian town of Gatchina. In this manner the Czar was illegally elected Grandmaster of the Order and was in truth never recognized by the Roman Catholic Pontiff. The Czar never became a Roman Cardinal. Grandmaster Von Hompesch left Malta much the same way, Grandmaster Isles Adam had previously left from Rhodes. The main difference though was the following: The Islamists did not deface nor destroy the works of art and belongings, which the Knights had in Rhodes, as did the ‘sons of the revolution’ in Malta. The French intended to eradicate the memory of the Order’s Catholic legacy, destroying many religious artifacts, other artifacts were ‘borrowed’ by the British. Grandmaster Hompesch died on May 12, 1805 in Montpellier, France and is buried in the Church of Saint-Eulalie. The Icon of Our Lady of Philermos therefore, passed into the Russian Imperial collections. The British signed the Treaty of Amiens of 1802, together with the French and Russians, which specifically mentioned the return of the Order to Malta, this treaty was conveniently altogether ignored. Paul I intended to bring the Order back to Malta, however, in September 1800 the British occupied Malta annexing the French. The Maltese invited Britain in and the locals assassinated Napoleon’s General Vaubois. General Napoleon Bonaparte used the Amiens excuse to start his wars against all of Europe. The Russian Emperor thus failed to bring the Order back to Malta, Our Lady of Philermos and Saint John’s relic remained under his care, the care of the Romanov family. Czar Paul I developed a devotion to Our Lady of Philermos and prayed for the intercession of Our Lady against Napoleon. Following his assassination, his son Alexander I was enthroned. Alexander skillfully defeated the Napoleonic French. This historical figure would with time develop a strong bond with Orthodox Christianity and became, as his associates pointed out, ever more ‘holy.’ To this day it is still a mystery whether his funeral was staged. In later years a solitary hermit emerged, recounting details of the Napoleonic campaign that only Alexander I could have known. Czar Alexander II was convinced that Napoleon’s defeat came through the aid of Our Lady when she was particulalry invoked through her many Russian Icons. He publically proclaimed this when he offered all the war trophies and battle banners of the Napoleonic invasion to the Basilica of Our Lady of Kazan as a sign of Our Lady’s victory.
The Icon of Our Lady of Philermos remained in the possession of the Russian Romanovs till 1928. Emperor Nicholas II had a particular veneration towards the Icon and had a copy made and kept in his desk. Konstantin Voyenski, who was the former chamberlain to Nicholas II, reported this fact. Voyenski assisted the Emperor in setting up the Military Historical Society and in organizing the celebrations of 1912, dedicated to the centenary of the Russian victory over Napoleon. As the world knows too well, Emperor Nicholas II was together with his family, murdered during the Bolshevik Revolution of Russia. On October 12th of each year, the Icon of Philermos and the relic of Saint John the Baptist were carried in procession and with great pomp, to the Cathedral of Gatchina, Russia, and there exposed for public veneration. October 12 coincides with the Feast of Our Lady of the Pillar and eve to the Catholic Feast of Blessed Gerard and the last Fatima apparition of Our Lady and the miracle of the sun. Following the revolution, the Icon of Our Lady of Philermos was received as a gift by the Karageorgiovich Dynasty of Yugoslavia and in April 1941 it was translated to Saint Peter’s Monastery in Cetinje, Montenegro. Today, the Icon of Our Lady of Philermos can be viewed but not venerated, at the Cetinje Museum in Montenegro, a European region which became an independent state in 2006. Every year on June 24, a procession with a relic of Saint John the Baptist is paraded by the Maltese Bishop along the streets of Valletta and accompanied by representatives of the Knights of the Holy Sepulchre and representatives of the Order of the Blessed Virgin and Saint John the Baptist. One matter is sure, Malta earned its independence in 1964 and later its EU membership and no Nation can lay claim to it.
Interestingly, on September 8 1565, the solemnity of Our Lady’s Nativity, the Spanish adventurer and explorer Captain General of the Indies Fleet, Pedro Menendez de Aviles, landed in Florida and proclaimed it Spanish and Catholic territory. On that Saturday, he planted a cross and while singing the hymn ‘Te Deum Laudamus,’ kissed it, naming the new settlement St Augustine 40 years before Jamestown and 50 years before Plymouth Rock. The natives copied and imitated the explorer’s actions. The first shrine dedicated to Our Lady was erected on this very spot and dedicated to ‘Our Lady of Good Delivery.’ It is incredible that on the same day, the good Lord wrought a victory through the mostly Spanish ‘Grand Succor’ in Malta and allowed the formation of the oldest settlement in the USA through the Spanish explorer Pedro Menendez de Aviles.