The Inquisition in Malta

The Inquisitor’s Judgement Seat

xThe Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu (Vittoriosa) Malta, is apparently the only one in the world open to the public. Originally the building housed the Law courts of the Knights of St John until 1571, when they were left vacant as the Knights moved their centre of operations to Valletta.  In 1574, the newly appointed Inquisitor Mgr Dusina took up residence in Valletta on his arrival, but it soon became clear that the nature of his work necessitated having access to cells where those under investigation could be detained.

Power in Malta at the time was balanced between the Knights and the Bishop. The Knights had their own clergy and often the two ecclesiastical bodies were at loggerheads, neither falling under the other’s jurisdiction.

With the spread of Protestantism, the Holy See in Rome decided it needed a representative in Malta separate from the Bishop, with special responsibility for the religious “health” of the Catholic citizens. In effect, the resultant office of Inquisitor effectively broke the stalemate of power, often acting as arbitrator. In such quarrels, the Inquisitor’s view usually prevailed as he had the most support in the Holy See in Rome.

The role of the Inquisitors was to ensure that the Maltese citizens did not get contaminated by non-catholic influences. In the 16th century, this was the Protestant doctrines spreading through Europe; in the 17th, it was the influence, seen to affect women in particular, of the many Muslim slaves who were purported to use magic and sorcery; in the 18th, when the Inquisition was declining, it busied itself with a perceived increase of blasphemy, bigamy, and apostasy to Islam.

The Inquisitor’s Palace in Birgu was initially a functional building, but as successive owners put their own stamp on it, it became a good example of noble houses of the period. For example, one Inquisitor added a staircase designed to generate awe/respect depending on the social status of the guest.  The higher his social standing, the lower down the staircase the inquisitor stood to greet him.   It was the first thing seen as visitors arrived.

Staircase of the Inquisitor’s Palace

He was often silhouetted against the light from the window behind, rendering his appearance all the more sinister to those in dread!

Contrary to the tales of the Spanish Inquisition, the Roman Inquisition in Malta was a much less punitive entity. Tours of the building include the cells, which surprisingly were hygienic, each one having its own “necessary”, with waste dropped down a dedicated chute. The beds were spartan but clean, and cells usually had two inmates although there were communal cells for the rowdies arrested for drunkenness and related misdemeanours. Men and women were kept well separated.

The cells were not always fit for purpose as the notice below tells, and needed renovation!

Notice on Prison Cell Reconstruction in Inquisitor’s Palace

Once led into the tribunal room, the prisoner, who had to duck under the low lintel to guarantee a bow toward the Inquisitor, was faced with the Judgement Seat. If a confession was not forthcoming, he was sent back to his or her cell and the possibility of “torture”. Despite the fearsome appearance of the noose in the picture below, this merely consisted of hauling the prisoner up by his wrists until the discomfort was considered sufficient to make him comply. Punishments meted out after confession were not major, rather they were humiliating. For example, an unfaithful person would have to declare their infidelity loudly and repetitively on the steps of the church for the period of a day. Serious misdemeanours resulted in similar penances for a week. There was no question of the rack or other awful instruments of torture favoured by the Spanish Inquisitors being used. The surroundings were designed to make the prisoners uncomfortable, although they were well fed, so were not hungry.

The Questioning Chamber

As well as a prison, the Palace was the home of the Inquisitor and over the centuries this building became a good example of the architecture of the period.

The Colonnaded Courtyard

This quote from the Heritage Malta brochure describes it very well.

“Besides choosing furniture that complements the elegantly frescoed rooms of the Piano Nobile, such as eighteenth-century writing bureaus, sculptured cabinets and intarsio chests of drawers, the building also includes a reconstruction of one of the most important spaces in an early modern Palace: the dining room.  Accompanying the centrally-located table and velvet-cushioned high back chairs are, amongst others, colourful period majolica jars and a selection of silver table-ware favoured by aristocratic and high-ranking ecclesiastics of the time.”

The Piano Nobile was a modern concept and would now be considered a salon, or reception room for dignitaries. I will leave you with the beauty of the room, which has, as a fresco around the tops of the walls, the coats of arms of all the Inquisitors who resided there. In Malta, if you do not look up, you miss the most wonderful sights.

The Piano Nobile

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3 Responses to The Inquisition in Malta

  1. Richard&Barbara Robinson says:

    Well done Jaqui.
    So much more interesting because we have been there with you on our last visit. We also ” enjoyed” if this is the right word The Sword & the Scimitar as we could visualise the setting. Will return it when we next meet!!

  2. Jane and Alan Tibbetts says:

    Thank you, Jaqui!
    Brings back memories of a wonderful day, wandering Birgu and touring the Palace…would be a nice ‘village atmosphere’ in which to locate. V.picturesque!

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