“It is a magnificent church, the most striking interior ever seen” by Sir Walter Scott
The Co-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is a Malta’s main attractions, a unique monument of international importance and one of the most beautiful church we have ever seen. It is one of the largest cathedrals in the world and one of the leading examples of Baroque architecture in Europe, embellished by Caravaggio’s paintings and works by Mattia Preti. The Cathedral, like the entire centre of Valletta, is part of the UNESCO World Heritage sites and it was the conventual church of the Order of the Knights of St John for over 200 years.
The Knights, noblemen from the most prominent families of Europe, had the mission to protect the Catholic faith from the ottoman’s attacks. The construction of the Co-Cathedral was commissioned by the Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere and was completed in 1577 and dedicated to St John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Order. The oratory and sacristy were constructed in 1598, during the Grand Master Martin Garzez, and were completed during the reign of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt in 1604.
The Church was designed by the Maltese military architect Glormu Cassar who also designed several of the more prominent buildings in Valletta. Initially, the interior of the Cathedral was modest, with few decorations. In the 17th century, the Grand Master Raphael Cottoner ordered its internal restructuring, to equip the Order of the Knights with a church that could compete in splendour with those of Rome. This religious building remained conventual church of the Order until the expulsion of the Knights from the island by the French.
Let’s go to visit the magnificent St John Co-Cathedral together
The external facade of the cathedral
The plan facade, flanked by two large towers bell, is severe and resembles the character of a military fortress reflecting both the style of the architect Cassar and that of the Knights’ Order. The central door is flanked by two Doric columns, which support an open balcony with balustrades, from which the Grand Master used to speak to the crowd on important occasions. Under the balcony there are three coats of arms: the coat of Grand Master La Cassiere, who paid for the building of the Cathedral; the coat of Bishop Torres who opened the Cathedral, and the third is the coat of arms of religion. The right side of the facade features three clocks: one shows the time, one shows the day of the week, and the other shows the date.
The nave of the Cathedral
The interior of the Cathedral consists of a wide nave with a barrel vault and two aisles divided into sides chapel. The history of the church is linked to the history of the Knights of St John. In the 17th century, the Grand Master Raphael Cottoner ordered the redecoration of the interior that was decorated mainly by Mattia Preti. Preti transformed the interior into a celebration of baroque art designing intricately carved stone walls and painting the vaulted ceiling and side altars with scenes from the life of St John. The contrast between the sober external facade and the richly decorated interior makes the Co-cathedral a unique monument. On the top of the green pilasters lining the nave, the eight-pointed white cross on a red background is displayed. Some historians say that the eight points signify the eight languages that represent the different regions of Europe from where the Knights of St John came.
When Sir Walter Scott, the Scottish historical novelist and poet, came to Malta in 1831 he said that the cathedral was a “magnificent church, the most striking interior ever seen”.
The marble floor of the Co-Cathedral is covered with 400 carved tombstones that commemorate some of the most illustrious knights of the Order. The gravestones are richly decorated in polychrome marble and hold the crests of the Knights, symbols of triumph, episodes of life depicting the single deceased, as well as symbolic elements and epitaphs.
All the buried knights are sons of Europe’s noble families from the time of the 16th to the 19th century. There is also a crypt containing the tombs of Grandmasters like Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Claude de la Sengle, Jean Parisot de Valette, and Alof de Wignacourt.
The sides chapels
St John’s Co-Cathedral has nine chapels, four on the right and five on the left. One Chapel is dedicated to the Madonna of Fileremo, and the other eight are dedicated to the patron saints of the languages of the Order
Chapels on the left side
1) Chapel of the Langue of Germany
The Chapel is dedicated to the epiphany of Christ. The painting above the altar is ”The adoration of the Magi” by Stefano Erardi (1630-1716) whereas the main central inlaid tablet is in memory of Fra Franz Sigismund von Thun, Captain-General of the galleys of the Order.
The sacristy boasts an elegant coffered barrel vault that was completed in 1604 under the charge of the knight Raymundo de Vere. His coat of arms is displayed in the centre below the niche that holds a statue of St. John above the altar. The other two coats of arms are those of Grandmaster Alof de Wignacourt and the Religion. The altarpiece is the Flagellation of Christ by Stefano Pieri (1572). On the left and right side are displayed other paintings date back to the 17th and 18th century.
3) The Chapel of the langue of Italy
This Chapel is dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and Saint Catherine of Alexandria, the patron saint of the Italian Knights. The altarpiece is the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, by Mattia Preti (17th century). Romano Carapecchia designed the marble altar surround (17th century), and the lunette paintings by Italian school represent scenes from the life of St Catherine and date back to the 17th century. Inside the Chapel, there is a Mausoleum which belongs to Italian Grand Master Gregorio Caraffa. The mausoleum consists of a marble base which rises his bust flanked by two small angels done in white marble.
4) The Chapel of the langue of France
It’s dedicated to the Conversion of Saint Paul. The altarpiece is the Conversion of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus by Mattia Preti. The two lunettes represent “St Paul’s shipwreck in Malta” and “The beheading of St Paul” (17th century). The Chapel boasts three mausolea dedicated to three French grandmasters: Adrien Wignacourt, Joachim Wignacourt and Emanuel de Rohan. In this chapel, there is the only monument which has nothing to do with the order of the Knights. It’s a mausoleum dedicated to Vicount of Beaujolais, the brother of the future King Louis Phillipe of France.
5) The Chapel of the langue of Provence
The chapel is dedicated to St Michael Archangel. The altar facade with its four twisted columns dates back to 1620s and is one of the earliest that is found in St John’s Co-Cathedral. Here there are two mausolea dedicated to two grandmasters from the region of Provence, Jean Lascaris and Antoine de Paule.
6) The Chapel of the langue of the Anglo-Bavarian Langue
The chapel is dedicated to St Charles Borromeo, and it’s also known as the Chapel of Relics. The altarpiece is St Charles Borromeo before the Blessed Virgin Mary and Child attributed to Alessandro Algardi (17th century). The Chapel hosts two caskets containing relics of various saints.
Chapel on the right side
1) The chapel of the Blessed Sacrament
This chapel housed the icon of Our Lady of Philermos, in possession of the Knights from the time of the crusades and currently in Montenegro. The miraculous image was hugely devoted most of all before various battles that the Knights of St John fought. The Lady of Philermos is also known as the “Virgin of all Graces”, and is the symbol of the Marian spirituality of the Order. The Chapel is adorned with an altar and facade of fine-inlay marble, and a richly carved gilded ceiling contains paintings representing scenes of the Virgin.
2) The chapel of Langue of Auvergne
The chapel is dedicated to St Sebastian, one of the early Christian martyrs. The altarpiece represents The martyrdom of St Sebastian, attributed to Luca Garnier (17th century). Inside the chapel, there is one only one mausoleum, dedicated to the Grand Master Annet Clement de Chattes-Gessan, who ruled briefly between 9th February and 2nd June 1660. The floor of the chapel consists of tombstones of Knights from Auvergne.
3) The chapel of the langue of Aragon
The chapel is dedicated to St George and it is particularly rich in works of art by Mattia Preti. The altarpiece depicts “St. George on Horseback”, one of the masterpieces of the artist. In this chapel are four beautiful monuments to four Spanish grandmasters: Raphael Cottoner and his brother Nicholas, Martin DeRedin and Ramon Perellos. The chapel also features several relics such as the arm of St George, the entire body of St Fidele martyr and the arm of St Vincent Ferrari.
4) The Chapel of the Langue of Castille, Leon and Portugal
This chapel is dedicated to St James, the patron saint of Spain, and so as the Chapel of the langue of Aragon, all the paintings are made by Mattia Preti. The altarpiece depicts “St James the Less”, whereas the lunette paintings, always by Mattia Preti, depict “St James banishing the moor from Spain” and “St James vision of our lady of Pilar”. The Chapel hosts two fine mausolea dedicated to two Portuguese grandmasters: Manoel Pinto and Manoel de Vilhena. Grand Masters’ Manoel de Vilhena monument is said to be one of the most spectacular mausolea inside St John’s Co-Cathedral.
5) The oratory
The oratory, the area of the cathedral where the novices were trained, features the most famous work in the church: The Beheading of St John by Caravaggio (16th century). Here, it’s also displayed another inestimable work of art by Caravaggio for the Knights: St Jerome. In the oratory, you’ll also find the organ, a rare music instrument of south Italian origin dating to the late 16th century.
Need to Know about St John Co-Cathedral
Visiting hours: Monday to Friday 9.30 to 16.30; Saturday 9.30 to 12.30; closed on Sunday and public holidays.
Entrance fees: adults 10 Euro; senior citizens 7.50 euro; student 7.50 Euro; children under 12yo free. The audioguide is included.
How to reach the Cathedral: the entrance is along Republic street in Valletta. If you are not sleeping in Valletta, take a bus to reach Valletta bus terminal and then walk for 10 minutes.