Valletta
Facts revealed! Learning more about St John’s Co-Cathedral and its oratory windows
‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’ is located close to these oratory windows.

Lyndsey Grima

It’s official! The St John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation has announced that the work on the new museum construction project is progressing at a fast pace.

Previously, the Oratory that houses the ‘The Beheading of St John the Baptist’ underwent an ambitious renovation led by Mattia Preti. Their renovations and structural changes were finished in 1695.

According to an article published in The Burlington Magazine in 1997, by David M. Stone, Professor Emeritus of the University of Delaware Newark, these renovations ‘eradicated most traces of the original environment for Caravaggio’s Beheading’ located on the southeast wall. The interventions done by Preti included the blocking of the sixth window on the northeast side, which was in line with the fifth window in contention.

However, it so happens that the fifth window could not have been the aperture that allowed natural light to fall on the painting because it is too distant from the painting itself to participate in the chiaroscuro of the image. It can also be noted that the triumphal arch in front of the Beheading, constructed in the time of Preti, further distanced it from the said fifth window and the natural light.

Also, the sixth window, which is the one closest to where the painting of the ‘Beheading’ hung, was blocked off by Mattia Preti himself. This means that it is unlikely that this window illuminated the painting effectively. In all probability, it caused raking light not allowing the viewer to see the picture properly.

In reality, the ‘light’ in the painting is a ‘painted’ light. It is the well-crafted chiaroscuro and the luce di cantina technique that gives the illusion of external light entering the scene.

Due to the fact that UV rays in natural light have been scientifically proven to damage all organic materials including canvas paintings, the windows have been kept firmly shuttered for decades to keep light out of the Oratory.

To solve this ‘problem’, the Foundation installed a state-of-the-art LED lighting system to ensure the correct lux levels and preserve the precious Beheading painting from any possible light damage.

The closure of the fifth window came about due to the ongoing New Museum Project, which was granted planning permission in 2016 following public consultation, and approval from the Superintendence of Cultural Heritage and from UNESCO.

The interior of the Oratory remains unaltered and the re-contextualisation of the original setting for Caravaggio’s Beheading actually took place in the late 1600s by Mattia Preti and not as a result of the new museum project.

26th June 2023


Lyndsey Grima
Written by
Lyndsey Grima
Lyndsey has always been passionate about all things content. She keeps her storytelling skills sharp by exercising physically as she’s a fitness buff and also mentally as she enjoys reading and travelling.

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