Once upon a time in old Gatchina: A palace built for Maltese knights

TASS/Ruslan Shamukov
In Gatchina, a suburb of St. Petersburg on the shores of Black Lake, stands the Priory Palace, notable for its pier and small, well-built tower. It was built for the Knights of Malta, an ancient Catholic military order, in the 1700s.

“The Fire of St. John’s has come. Ave…” declares a ringing young voice at night.

“Glory to the faith!.. Glory to chastity!.. ”

“Ave… ave…” some figures in coats with a Maltese cross say.


The spectators gathered on the field before the Priory’s entrance giggle when they hear the word “chastity.”

Every year, on Museums’ Night (16-17 May), a mini-play take place during which the actors performing as knights light torches in honor of the eight (as in the number of points in a Maltese cross) monkish virtues: faith, humility, truth, chastity, justice, patience, mercy and sincerity.

Photo credit: TASS/Ruslan Shamukov
“Once we were doing a knights’ procession and decided to reach the palace by boat,” remembers Dmitry Gulyev, the palace-museum’s director. “On the lake there was a guy who had come out to fish and had probably dozed off. And then our boat passed by, carrying the knights with their flags of Christ. So, one of the knights murmured: ‘s'il vous plaît – keep off, please!’ The fisherman was so taken aback that he almost fell into the water.”

The Priory Palace isn’t the most important of this small town’s sights. There’s also the enormous Gatchina Palace, where Emperor Paul I used to live (who himself was at one time the Grand Master of the Knights). But the myths surrounding the Priory make it exceptionally popular: it is rumored that the two palaces are connected by an underground passage and the Priory’s palace is said to have hosted knights’ rituals. The Priory survived the German occupation, the air bombings and the difficulties of perestroika and remains standing to this day. During holiday periods knights’ torch processions with solemn oath-takings are set up. Even though they are staged, still they manage to recreate the atmosphere of those times for visitors.

Photo credit: TASS/Ruslan Shamukov
“Sometimes foreign tourists come here pretending to be Knights of the Order of Malta,” says Gulyev. “They’re from Estonia, Germany, Italy…Some of them are impostors, but there were also some genuine ones, they even showed us their documents.”

The Priory is the sole palace in Russia erected using rammed-earth building technology (a dense mixture of sand, gravel and clay placed into an external frame – editor). At that time this was an inexpensive and original way of putting up a building. In order to build the palace, architect Nikolai Lvov brought dozens of his own serfs here from the Tver Region, having taught them how to “build a palace from sand.”

Some skeptics had doubts that the palace could survive in St. Petersburg’s rainy climate. However, as it turned out, the materials involved in rammed-earth building are durable. When the palace was ready, Russian Empress Maria Fyodorovna tried to personally make a hole in the wall, but was unsuccessful. Later on, several soldiers tried to smash the walls with broadswords, but they had no luck. Finally, they realized that the building was solid. Over the course of more than two centuries, the earth has become even more compressed.  

Photo credit: Lori/Legion-Media
The Priory’s walls and roof are painted in red, white and gold, the colors of the Order of Malta. The weather vane is decorated with a metallic snake, a symbol of wisdom and secret knowledge. The palace’s 38-meter tower is merely a Romantic addition, as it has never functioned as either a bell-tower or as a lookout post. Its winding staircase leads nowhere.

The palace has reenacted the destiny of the Knights’ order in Russia highlighting solemnity, exoticism and a lack of common sense. Here there are false windows and false balconies: everything is gorgeous, but without a purpose. There are chimneys in the shape of Chinese pagodas and the window arches have a pointed, Gothic form, while the flags bear the six-pointed stars of David. 

The attempt by Emperor Paul I to split the Order of St. John into Catholic and Orthodox parts failed. However, the Knights gave Russia an Orthodox festival as a gift: October 12, the day that Malta’s sacred objects were transferred to Gatchina. The Knights of St. John brought with them a piece of the cross on which, according to legend, Jesus Christ was crucified, the right hand of John the Baptist and the Our Lady of Filermo icon painted by Luke the Evangelist. The sacred objects were kept in Russia until the Russian Civil War, which ended in 1923. After the war they were smuggled abroad by General Nikolai Yudenich’s anti-communist White forces.

All rights reserved by Rossiyskaya Gazeta.

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