Category Archives: Wignacourt’s Treasures

King Henry VIII’s Assertio Septem Sacramentorum

Before King Henry VIII of England separated the Church of England from the Roman Catholic Church, he was given the title of Fidei Defensor (Defender of the Faith) by Pope Leo X for writing Assertio Septem Sacramentorum, a copy of which is on display at the Wignacourt in Rabat, Malta.

The 16th century was a time plagued by religious warfare, and the repercussions and results of the conflicts that ensued can still be felt to this very day in every corner of the Western world. From Martin Luther, to the first translation of the Bible from Latin to German, to the dissolution of the Church of England from the Papacy, to the mass murder of Protestants that gave Mary I of England the nickname ‘Bloody Mary’, no artefacts recount the tale better than the books that were penned at the time.

One of these is Henry VIII’s Assertio Septem Sacramentorum (In Defence of the Seven Sacraments), a theological treatise that challenged Martin Luther’s attacks on the authority of the Pope and the Church’s use of indulgences to collect money from its believers. The disquisition was widely read and went through about 20 editions from 1521, when it was first published, to the end of the 16th century when the book went out of print.

Henry VIII

The copy now at the Wignacourt dates back to 1562, and was left to the museum by one of its most important benefactors: the notary Catania. This particular copy was produced in Paris, France and was probably reprinted during the run-up to the French Wars of Religion, when Protestants and Catholics battled for both their beliefs and their survival.

The book, like many other objects found in museums all over the world, gives humanity a testament of a turbulent past whose effect was titanic, and the hope that even the darkest of times fade from memory.


A One Of A Kind Portable Altar

When one thinks of treasures, the first things that usually come to mind are items that are valuable in themselves, like gold or precious stones; but one of the Wignacourt’s most prized possessions is a modest portable altar many would probably walk past.

Found on the first floor of the museum, the portable altar is neither adorned with gold nor was it particularly valuable in its heyday. But centuries later, as the rest of its kin have been lost to time, it has become a truly unique object.

This kind of altar was a staple on any galley bearing the flag of the Sovereign Military Order of the Knights of St John, and were highly practical since they allowed the knights to hear Mass whenever and wherever they needed to.

Portable Altar

The altar, although quite compact when set up, has storage space on either side where candles, Hosts and anything else needed to celebrate Mass can be stowed away. It also has two lamps which illuminate the altar while being used; a small crucifix in its centre made out of ivory; and is decorated with prayers in Latin which would have been recited by the knights – although these have mostly faded away.

In its simplicity, however, the altar is also impressive, particularly in the way it was built with the motion of the rough seas in mind. The chalices used on such altars were suspended right underneath the ivory crucifix, and they could balance themselves out depending on the movement of the waves and the tilting of the vessel. The altar found at the Wignacourt is even more special than all the other alters of its kind, because it is the only known portable altar of the sort to survive the test of time.