Advantages Unique Caravaggio, amazing artwork, interesting tombs, tapestries
Disadvantages Can get crowded
St John’s co-cathedral in Valletta is found in the heart of the city, on Republic Street and Merchant Street. Work started on the church following the Great Siege of Malta in 1565, when the Knights of St John of Jerusalem held out and defeated the Ottoman Turks. The building was completed in 1577, and dedicated to St John the Baptist, the patron saint of the knights’ order. It is called a co-cathedral, since there was already a cathedral on the island at Mdina (I have reviewed this as well), but because the Knights were determined to construct a capital worthy of the name, which would have to include a cathedral, they arranged for this co-cathedral to have a throne (cathedra) for the Grand Master of the order.
The interior consists of a wide nave with a barrel vault, with two aisles with the chapels of the different language sections of the knights – German, French, Italian, Auvergne, Castille and Portugal and so on. Although originally austere like the exterior, the interior was transformed during the 17th century. The Calabrian artist Mattia Preti was commissioned to do the worh (he also painted the altar piece in Mdina cathedral).The walls are carved ornately, with the carvings covered with gold. Many different shades of marble have been used – blue, green, yellow, white, black – which all had to be imported from Italy, North Africa and even Afghanistan, bearing witness to the breadth of the Knights’ contacts.
Petti’s ceiling depicts episodes from the life of John the Baptist, and was painted in a way which is almost a trompe d’oeil to give the effect that the figures are looking down on you as you look up at them. The floor, as in Mdina cathedral, has a pavement of marble tomb slabs of the noblest members of the Order.The eight side chapels contain some of the finest funerary monuments of the Grand Masters of the Knights. They chose to be buried in the chapel of their language one the crypt of the co-cathedral started filling up. The Italian chapel has recently had its gold-covered wall carving recently cleaned up, while when we were there the French chapel was closed for refurbishment.
The sanctuary at the front has a very high altar with the tallest candles I can recall seeing. There is a large sculpture of the Baptism of Christ by Mazzuoli, who was strongly influenced by Bernini.The oratory to the side contains the single most famous painting on the island –the Beheading of St John the Baptist by Caravaggio. It is the only piece he is known to have signed, and was painted during his 15 months on the island, to which he had fled to escape a murder charge in Rome.
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