St. John's Co-Cathedral
Build between 1573 and 1577 as a conventual church for the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John. St. John's Co-Cathedral's interior is considered to be one of the finest examples of High Baroque architecture in Europe. Containing a striking Barrel-Vaulted ceiling painted between 1661 and 1666 by Mattia Preti, it also has some beautiful chapels and many works of art.
The Roman Catholic St John’s Co-Cathedral was commissioned by the Grand Master Jean de la Cassière (1502-1581) of the Order the Knights Hospitaller of St John. The Order arrived in Malta in 1530 when they were granted the islands by the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. In 1565 Malta was besieged by the Ottoman Turks, but they were unsuccessful in conquering the island due to the stand of the Order. The Ottoman Turks were forced to withdraw and, due to the Siege, the Knights of St. John had seriously diminished the power of the Ottomans.
Following their withdrawal, the city of Valletta was founded in 1566 and named after the Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Valette (1495-1568) who had led the Order during the siege.
It wasn’t until 1927 that a monument was erected to commemorate the victims of the Great Siege of 1665. This was produced by Maltese sculptor Antonio Sciortino (1879-1947) with the three figures representing Faith, Civilisation, and Valour, and is located just outside of the cathedral.
In 1572 Grand Master Jean de la Cassière commissioned the construction of the building as a conventual church, as he wanted the church in the heart of Valletta instead of St. Lawrence’s Church in Birgu, and wanted it dedicated to Saint John the Baptist.
Following construction, it retained its title as the conventual church of the Order until the Knights left Malta following the French occupation in 1798.
Designed in the Baroque style of architecture by Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar (1520-1592), who also designed the Grand Masters Palace and produced the original design for the Knights’ Hospital, La Sacra Infermeria.
Construction started in 1573 and was completed in 1577 using Maltese limestone, which lends itself particularly well to intricate carving.
In 1598, Grand Master Martin Garzez (1526-1601) ordered the construction of the oratory and sacristy. These were completed in 1604 under the stewardship of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt (1547-1622).
The building has undergone numerous additions over the centuries following gifts and inheritances left by the Knights, which also enabled further embellishment to the cathedral.
It is called a Co-cathedral as it shares the seat of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Malta with the older Cathedral of Saint Paul in Mdina.
The cathedral’s exterior has undergone a number of restorations. Work was required following damage from aerial bombing in 1941, then again on more recent occasions.
Despite some alterations, the façade still retains most of Cassar’s original Mannerist design (a style in European art that emerged in the later years of the Italian High Renaissance around 1520, spreading by about 1530 and lasting until about the end of the 16th century in Italy, when the Baroque style largely replaced it.) It is rather plain but well-proportioned, almost reminiscent of a military fort, with a bell tower on each side of the main door.
The bell tower on the right has three clocks, one shows the time, one the day of the week and the other shows the date.
Over the main door is a balcony supported by Doric columns. It was from this balcony that the name of newly elected grandmasters was announced, and from where they were reputed to have thrown golden coins to the people in the square below.
The main entrance of the cathedral is in St John's Square, but the visitors' entrance is from Great Siege Square on Republic Street, which is to the left-hand side of the main entrance.
The interior is considered to be one of the finest examples of High Baroque architecture in Europe. This is chiefly due to Calabrian artist Mattia Preti (1613-1699), who was himself a member of the Order. He redecorated what was originally a modest interior in the 1660s on the orders of the then Grandmaster Raphael Cotoner (1601-1663) who wanted an interior to rival the churches of Rome.
Preti designed the intricately carved stone walls and painted the vaulted ceiling and side altars with scenes from the life of St John the Baptist. Of particular note is the Barrel Vault which was painted by Preti between 1661 and 1666.
The figures painted on the ceiling next to each column give the impression of being three-dimensional statues, but this is an illusion created by the use of shadows.
All carving was undertaken in situ (in place) rather than being carved independently and then attached to the walls.
At the far end is the main altar and the organ pipes on either side.
The annexes on the side of the cathedral were added later and feature the coat of arms of Manoel de Vilhena António (1663-1736) who was Grand Master from 1722 to 1736.
Within the cathedral, on its two sides, are nine richly decorated chapels. Eight were made for each of the langues (or branches) of the Order of the Knights, by which the Order was organised. These represent different regions of Europe and are represented by the eight-pointed cross of the Order.
The ninth chapel was built in honour of Our Lady of Philermos, the patron saint of the Order and is enclosed by solid silver gates. This chapel is also known as the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament and originally held an ancient icon of Our Lady of Philermos, this was held sacred by the Knights and had been in the possession of the Order since the Crusades. The icon was taken to Russia by Grand Master Ferdinand von Hompesch zu Bolheim (1744-1805) when the Order was expelled from Malta in 1798 and it is now at the National Museum of Montenegro.
The Chapel of Castile, Leon, and Portugal is dedicated to Saint James and holds the remains of St. Clement which were donated to Grand Master Emanuel Pinto (1681-1773) in 1747 by Pope Benedict XIV as a gift. On the altarpiece, Mattia Preti depicted St James the Less, while on the right you can see the artist’s interpretation of St James banishing the Moors from Spain, then on the left, the Saint again, kneeling at the feet of Our Lady of Filar. The ornate marble funerary monuments of Grand Masters António Manoel de Vilhena (1722-1736) and Manuel Pinto da Fonseca (1741-1773) are in this chapel.
The Spanish langue’s chapel of Aragon, Catalonia, and Navarre is dedicated to Saint George and contains a painting by Mattia Preti of the Saint on horseback on the altarpiece. Within the chapel, are the funerary monuments of four Spanish Grand Masters – Raphael Cotoner (1601-1663) and his brother Nicolas Cotoner (1608-1680), Martin de Redin (1590-1660), and a magnificent monument by Giuseppe Mazzuoli to Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccaful (1637-1720).
The Chapel of the Langue of Germany was originally assigned to the langue of England but following the English Reformation was given to the langue of Germany. It is dedicated to the Epiphany of Christ and shows The Adoration of the Magi by the Maltese painter Stefano Erardi (1630-1716) on the altarpiece. The lunettes ( a half-moon shaped architectural space, filled with sculpture, painted, glazed, filled with recessed masonry, or void.) also by Erardi represent ‘The Nativity of Christ’ and ‘The Massacre of the Innocents’. This is the only chapel that has no funerary monuments dedicated to Grandmasters, this is due to no German Grandmaster dying while the Order was in Malta. The chapel was damaged during World War II and restored after the war.
The Chapel of the Langue of Italy is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and Saint Catherine of Alexandria and has the painting ‘The Mystic Marriage of St Catherine’ by Mattia Preti decorating the altarpiece. The chapel also contains the paintings ‘Mary Magdalene mourning at the tomb’- which is anonymous and ‘St Jerome’ by Caravaggio (1571-1610), and the funerary monument of two Grand Masters. The lunettes represent ‘St Catherine disputing the philosophers’ and ‘The Martyrdom of St Catherine’.
The Chapel of Provence is dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel and Its altarpiece shows the archangel leading God’s armies against Satan. This chapel also contains marble funerary monuments of Grandmaster Antoine de Paule (1623-1636) and Giovanni Paolo Lascaris (1636-1657).
From this chapel, a flight of steps leads to the crypt.
The crypt contains the tombs of a number of the notable Grandmasters that ruled over the Order between 1522 and 1623. These include Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam (1464-1534), Claude de la Sengle (1494-1557), and Alof de Wignacourt.
The most famous tomb is that of Jean Parisot de la Valette. Valette died in 1568 and was buried in Our Lady of Victory Church. His remains were transferred to the Cathedral of St John in 1579. His tomb in the form of a sarcophagus can be found in the Crypt of the Cathedral.
The cathedral also contains a number of beautiful paintings and works of art. One of the most famous is the Caravaggio depicting the Beheading of Saint John the Baptist painted in 1608.
This is the largest canvas he ever painted and the only one he ever signed. It is housed in the Oratory, which also contains Caravaggio’s Saint Jerome.
The entire floor of the co-cathedral, from the nave, chapels and the oratory is covered with over 400 marble tombstones. These date from the early 17th century to the 19th century and each of them is unique and the final resting place of many important Knights of the Order of St John.
The Grandmasters have elaborate sarcophagi or monuments. The funerary monument of Grand Master Marc’Antonio Zondadari (1658-1722), nephew of Pope Alexander VII, is located close to the main entrance. It was originally meant to be installed in the Chapel of the Langue of Italy, but it was too large, so it was placed in the nave.
The Crucifixion Group stands in the passageway that leads to the sacristy and was given to the cathedral in 1653. It consists of three large wooden statues, the Crucifix, the Virgin Mary, and St John the Evangelist.