There are no superlatives big enough to describe the magnificence of the “temple of the Knights”.
There are 359 churches in the Maltese Islands, but St John’s Co-Cathedral stands out as the finest jewel in the crown of our architectural heritage. A jaw-dropping, awe-inspiring, breathtaking feast of baroque splendour. And I make no apology for the adjectives overload!
The cathedral stands proud in the heart of the capital city Valletta with a sombre, austere facade that belies the beauty within. For the full effect of its stark elegance, walk down the narrow strip of Zachary Street which runs parallel to Republic Street. The monumental cathedral looms on the horizon, drawing you towards it.
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Pause a moment to take in its imposing, fortress-like exterior, reflecting the architect Girolamo Cassar’s style as a military engineer as well as the Order of St John’s mood after the Great Siege of 1565. It was from the balcony above the main entrance that the name of the newly-elected grand master used to be announced. The new grand master would then shower the crowd below with gold coins.
Walk round the corner to the visitors’ entrance in Republic Street and prepare to be dazzled.
©viewingmalta.com - (Chen Weizhong)
Commissioned by Grandmaster Jean de la Cassière and built between 1572 and 1577, the cathedral has been described as the “finest testimony of the Order of St John’s aspirations and splendour at any time in its 900 year history.” It was built to take over as Conventual Church of the Order from St Lawrence’s Church in Vittoriosa (Birgu) and later became as important as the archbishop’s cathedral in Mdina. In 1820, the Bishop of Malta was allowed to use St John’s as an alternative see, hence the term co-cathedral.
Over the years, several grand masters and knights donated works of art and made huge contributions to enrich the cathedral, yet large parts of the cathedral itself remain the masterpiece of one Knight of Grace, the Italian artist Mattia Preti.
The Calabrian artist was responsible for the intricate stone carvings which he made on site, as well as the paintings on the vaulted ceiling and side altars depicting scenes from the life of St John. Take a closer look at the figures next to each column. Preti deftly used a clever combination of shadows and placement to create a three dimensional illusion.
The floor is another masterpiece altogether, albeit of a rather macabre nature, for it consists of a marble tapestry of 405 tombstones of Knights, officers of the Order and other noblemen.
The cathedral has nine chapels, four on the right and five on the left, one dedicated to Our Lady of Philermos, also known as the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, and the rest dedicated to the patron saints of each of the Order’s eight langues.
Legend has it that the solid silver gate in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament was painted black to fool Napoleon’s army into thinking it was made of worthless wood and stop them from looting it.
As if all that elaborate sculpture, marble and high Baroque art were not enough, St John’s co-Cathedral contains two further world-class masterpieces by none other than Caravaggio, both exhibited in the Oratory. The painting of St Jerome Writing was stolen on New Year’s Eve 1984, but was retrieved almost three years later, badly damaged. Now restored to its former glory, it hangs opposite Caravaggio’s magnum opus, the Beheading of St John, the only painting the artist ever signed. Caravaggio sought refuge in Malta in 1606 after killing a man in a street brawl in Italy. The Knights granted him asylum on condition that he would paint for them, but he soon fell foul of the Order, picking a fight with a Knight and fleeing the island in disgrace.
Extra treat: Messa da Requiem world premier on 16th March
If you are visiting Malta this week, don't miss the world premier of Messa da Requiem by Maltese composer and conductor Mark Agius, performed at St John’s Co-Cathedral at 7:30pm by the St Paul Chamber Ensemble and the Rotondo Choir of Poznan, Poland, under the direction of Natalia Anna Sobkowiak. The concert stars Maltese soloists Karen Gatt Darmenia (soprano), May Caruana (contralto), Charles Vincenti (tenor) and Ivan Vella (baritone). The charity performance is being held in aid of Dar tal-Providenza, Malta’s only home for persons with disabilities. The orchestra is crowdfunding to cover its costs for all its projects this year, including this premier. You can support them here in exchange for a ticket to the concert.
St John’s Co-Cathedral is open to visitors Monday to Friday from 9:30am to 4:30pm (last admission at 4pm) and on Saturday from 9:30am to 12:30pm (last admission at noon). The cathedral is closed on Sundays and public holidays.
Entrance fee: Adults: €10; Seniors: €7.50; Children under 12: free; Students: €7.50