The People of Gibraltar
1530s - San Juan el Verde - Gibraltar

La Iglesia de San Juan el Verde is - to me at any rate - historically irritating. I know roughly what it looked like and would more or less have been able to find it had I lived in Gibraltar 400 years ago - but I am still at a loss to know who exactly ran the place and what they were doing on the Rock.

Let me take the bit I know about best first. According to various 17th century and later sources - including Alonso Hernández del Portillo (see LINK) - at the southern end of the Arenales colorados - the red sandy area that stretched from Charles V Wall right up to the southern edge of what was then known as la Ensenada de San Juan el Verde (see LINK) which obviously took its name from the church - there was a very beautiful and productive orchard. 

The Red Sands - Arenales colorados       (1738 - Tindal and Rapin)

It was admired by both visitors and locals alike for the large number of delicious fruit trees, vines and other produce grown there. Among the favourites were the fig trees which were so abundant that they were considered at the time to be a native species. The area was enclosed and protected by rows of prickly pear plants of the Opuntia genus. Known in my youth as “higo chumbo” I remember its fruit as being very difficult to peel because of its spines and only just about worth the trouble to do so from a gastronomical point of view.

“Higo Chumbo” plants growing in the gardens of the Mount - Gibraltar    (1903 - Sarah Angelina Acland  - Courtesy of the Museum of the History of Science - Colour composite by Giles Hudson)  (See LINK

Several authorities claim that la Iglesia de San Juan el Verde had actually been built inside the orchard which would later be known to the British as the Vineyard. My own theory is that the orchard was actually belonged to another much smaller chapel of which so far I have not been able to find out too much about other than that it may have been called Santa Rosa. But whether I am right or not what is certain is that San Juan el Verde was itself surrounded by fruit trees and in what was a generally a green and pleasant part of the Rock.

Overall plan of the Rock identifying the location of San Juan el Verde) on the southern Tarfes Bajos (Europa Flats) area of Gibraltar       (1608 - Capitan Cristóbal Rojas - detail) (See LINK

San Juan (el Verde) surrounded by trees more or less in front of la Ensenada de San Juan el Verde (Bay of Rosia)     (1608 - Capitan Cristóbal Rojas - detail)

Over the years two very similar theories attempted to explain why the church was known as “green”- but I will leave it to Portillo to explain:
Tengo oído sobre el nombre de esta ermita algunas variaciones. . .  se dijo verde por que el día de su fiesta esta todo su campo verde. . . . Dicen otros que por estar esta ermita entre las huertas se dijo verde.
Despite this Portillo was not entirely convinced:
. . . . la verdad porque se dijo verde es porque el tejado con que estaba cubierta la iglesia era de tejas verdes vidriadas y aun hoy duran más de una docena de estas tejas y yo le conocí más de cincuenta.
Which incidentally leads one to suspect that even as early as 1627 the church was already in serious need of refurbishment.

(1970 - George Palao - adapted)

The raison d’être of this church, however, is harder to decipher. It was undoubtedly of importance to the local population.  It was one of only three main churches on the southern end of the Rock and well outside the town proper. The church was one of the places used as refuge by some members of the population during the bombardment of the town by French warships under Vice Admiral M. de Coëtlogon in 1693. (See LINK)

French warships bombarding the town in 1693   (Unknown )

It was also used for the same purpose during the Anglo-Dutch assault on Gibraltar a few years later in 1704 - although most of the more historically interesting confrontations between the civilians - who were mostly women - and the invading troops (see LINK) took place in another church - la Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Europa.  (See LINK

Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Europa  (1970 - George Palao - adapted)

It was also considered as an important religious site in peacetime. The church contained an image of Nuestra Señora de Consolación which was apparently venerated to such an extent that some of the locals actually named the church after her rather than Saint John.

Statue of Nuestra Señora de Consolación in Granada. This particular virgin is venerated all over Spain but mostly in the South     (Unknown)

Portillo also writes that the church was :
. . . . de la encomienda de los Caballeros de San Juan del hospital, que ahora dicen de Malta. . . .
In other words the church was under the protection of the Knights of St. John of Malta . . . . A short essay on just one of the many obscure and now long gone Spanish churches of Gibraltar is hardly the place to enter into the truly byzantine intricacies of this militant Catholic order which came into existence in the 11th century to provide care for pilgrims visiting the biblical lands of Israel, particularly Jerusalem - all of which is disputed by some historians.

During the 16th and 17th century, the Order seems to have become involved in a whole range of activities including not just the setting up of hospitals but also involving itself in far more lucrative activities. One was the protection of Christian merchant shipping in the Mediterranean and the freeing of Christian slaves captured by the Barbary corsairs. This last is usually associated - in so far as Gibraltar is concerned - with the awkwardly named Real y Militar Orden de Nuestra Señora de la Merced Redención de Cautivos  - known as the  Mercedarians in English.

Which of course leads to a series of questions - what were the Knights of the St John doing in Gibraltar, why did they need to build themselves a church and why was it built in what was effectively the local boondocks, well outside the main town yet close to a useful outlet to the Bay - a small cove named after their very own church - la Ensenada de San Juan el Verde.

My answer to all these questions is that I simply do not know.  But I find it interesting to realise that San Juan el Verde is one of the very few churches that have not just been identified but has been depicted in plans and maps going right back to 1567.

(1567 - Anton Van Wyngaerde - Detail)    (See LINK)

Wyngaerde’s handwriting leaves much to be desired but I make it that the caption for the more complex looking sea tower on the middle left is “la Torra Tort” or la Torre del Tuerto which in turn identifies the small bay below it as the site of the New Mole. 

The two churches on the “Joan Plaza” - perhaps the Plaza de San Juan el Verde - are labelled A and B.  The one on the left - A - is Na Sr de los Remedios, the one to its right - B - which faces the second small cove to its left, is San Juan el Verde. It suggests that it was not just the cove that took its name from the church but the entire area between the church and the cove.

(1627 - Luis Bravo de Acuña - Detail)   (See LINK)

Bravo identifies the church “H” as San Juan el Verde and right in front of it “K” as the Caleta de San Joan (San Juan el Verde). The plan also seems to confirm a comment by Portillo to the effect that:
Cerca de ella (San Juan  el Verde) se hizo un Calvario con muchas cruces, estaciones i pasos en memoria de de los que Jesu Christo anduvo por la salvación de los hombres; levantado por la devoción i limosna del almirante Roque Centeno, que lo fue de la armada del Estrecho, de que era general Don Francisco Faxardo (his proper name was actual Luis Fajardo); i fue esto por los años de 1623.

The British Siege of Cadiz - 1625 - Almirante Roque Centeno is the fellow with green socks - I think     (Francisco de Zurbarán)

The cross shown in front of the church in Bravo’s plan perhaps identifies the position of the first Station of the Cross.

The new landlords of Gibraltar after 1704 were much inclined to convert any and all Catholic places of worship into stores, guardhouses, hospitals and what have you. I am not entirely sure what happened to San Juan in this respect but after this date the church no longer appears on any maps - other than on a few French efforts in which its position seems somewhat suspect. The world had moved on and the Church of Saint John the Green - a name which it would never really be known as - had become as they say - ancient history.