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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.
From the outside, there is no indication of the artistic treasures waiting on the inside. The church is still very strong in Malta, and the visitor is asked to show respect for a house of God. There is a dress code, which if you do not meet means you will be asked to wear a shawl or wrap. There minimum size for heels to protect the inlaid marble floor, and flash photography is not permitted, hence the variable quality of the pictures I have uploaded.
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. He was forced to leave Malta after he ended up in jail after a brawl. The Beheading is remarkably realistic in tone, showing a surprising amount of blood, as it depicts the moment after the sword has beheaded him, and the executioner is reaching for a dagger to complete the job by severing the tendons. The oratory also has another Caravaggio, this time depicting St Jerome translating the Bible into Latin.
The oratory leads onto the museum, which has some magnificent Flemish tapestries depicted scenes from Reubens and Poussin. There are some 16th century manuscripts of ecclestiastical music in cases, and a wonderful monstrance, which is used to display the consecrated bread during the Catholic mass. Beyond the tapestries, you can see various vestments in display cases, and come out into the amply stocked bookstore.
Overall, you are struck by the sheer scale and beauty of the interior, even if you are not an art afficianado. It can be very crowded, and look out for the restricted opening times. However, I think it is fair to say no visit to Valletta would be complete without a visit here.
Opening times: Mon-Fri 9:30-16.30, Sat 9:30-12.30 Entrance fee: M£2.50 (roughly £4, €5.75), free for under 12s. A free audio guide is available, with various fixed points around the co-cathedral giving explanations of what you can see. Dress: no bare arms, no high heels, no small heels. Only 52 people allowed in the oratory (where the Caravaggios are) at any one time
Pictures of St. John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Island of Malta