Visiting St John's Co-Cathedral: Valletta, Malta
Located prominently in the center of Valletta on the island of Malta is one of the finest examples of Baroque architecture, and one of the most beautiful cathedrals in all of Europe. Built in the 16th century as a church for the Knights of St John, the cathedral today is a monument to the fascinating history of this small Mediterranean island.
Any visit to Malta must include a walk through the historic center of Valletta and a visit to St John's Co-Cathedral. The large yet subtle facade of the cathedral masks the flamboyant interior with its Baroque style and works of art by some of the leading artists of the period. The two large bell towers that stand guard above the cathedral give the building a fortress character, which was appropriate for the time and the events that led to the construction of the cathedral.
The history of St John’s Cathedral goes back to the early 16th century when the Knights of St John were given the small Mediterranean island of Malta. The Hospitallers, as the Knights were known, had to withdraw from the Island of Rhodes in 1522 after being defeated by the Ottoman Turks under the command of Sultan Suleiman. The Knights were allowed to settle on Sicily and from there they moved about the Mediterranean for the next eight years looking for a place to establish themselves. Finally, in 1530 the Roman Emperor, King Charles V of Spain, gave them the Maltese Islands and from this small island chain the Knights of St John continued their work to protect Christians from the Ottoman pirates who preyed on them. Not happy with the resettlement of the Knights, in 1565 the Ottoman Empire, still under the rule of Sultan Suleiman, sent a huge invasion force to Malta to expel the Knights and to form a new base from which to launch an assault on Europe.
Have you ever heard of the Kinght's of St John?
Outnumbered by an Ottoman army of about 48,000, the 700 Knights and a few thousand soldiers of Malta valiantly defended the island during the three month siege and against all odds repelled the invaders. The battle, known in the history books as the Great Siege of Malta was significant not only for the island of Malta, but for all of Europe. Had the Ottomans been able to establish a base on Malta they would have had a strategic launching point to invade Sicily, and eventually the rest of Europe. Were the Ottoman Muslims not defeated, historians speculate that all of Europe might today be worshipping in Mosques instead of Churches.
Grateful for the efforts of the Knights and the people of Malta, the Catholic Church bestowed upon them huge monetary gifts, which were used to build a new capital city. Thus, the city Valletta was born, and named after the hero of the siege, Knight Jean Parisot de Valette.
Fearing that the Ottomans would someday return to Malta, Valletta was built as a fortress with high thick walls to protect the city. And in the most prominent position in the center of the new city was to be the site for the new church, named St John’s Cathedral after the Knights of St John and their patron saint, John the Baptist.
Touring the Cathedral
The cathedral itself is a stunning work of art, not that one can tell this from the exterior. But don’t let the simple façade of the outside deter you from going inside, this cathedral is simply amazing. Virtually every square inch of the interior is adorned in gold, silver, marble and color.
The nave, or main body of the church, is an impressive 15 meters wide and 53 meters in length with chapels on either side. There are nine chapels in total, and eight of them are dedicated to one of the different langues of the Order of the Knights. In simple terms the langue represents the various national origins of the members of the Knights of St John. There is one for Italy, one for Germany, France and so on. Each chapel is in itself a masterpiece of Baroque art.
Nine Chapels of St John's Co-Cathedral
- The Chapel of the Langue of Castile, Leon and Portugal
- The Chapel of the Langue of Provence
- The Chapel of the Langue of Aragon
- The Chapel of the Langue of Auvergne
- The Chapel of the Langue of Italy
- The Chapel of the Langue of Germany
- The Chapel of the Langue of France
- The Chapel of the Anglo-Bavarian Langue
- The Chapel of our Lady of Philermos
The entire floor of the cathedral is another work of art and is covered in tombstones made from marble. These are the tombs of some of the most famous Knights of St John who are appropriately laid to rest here in the cathedral. Each of the 400 tombs is uniquely decorated with the coat of arms of the Knight and it presents a colorful landscape to the cathedral floor.
Did You Know?
The cathedral is called St John’s Co-Cathedral because during the 1820s the Bishop of Malta, who was seated in Mdina at St. Paul’s Cathedral, decided that St John’s Cathedral would share in the honor as the main church for the bishop, hence the title of co-cathedral.
The High Altar of the church is located in the Sanctuary and is considered the most sacred place in the cathedral. The altar is made entirely of marble and was a gift of Grand Master Carafa. Also in the apse is the very impressive marble sculpture titled the ”Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist”, and the silver Sanctuary lamp being held by two angels.
The ceiling is just as one might expect, and is another work of art containing frescoes depicting scenes from the bible. Artist Mattia Preti spent six years painting the ceiling and he is also buried here in the cathedral. It’s a lot to take in but extremely impressive.
In addition to the cathedral, there is also the picture gallery and the Oratory, which include a number of pieces of artwork by Italian artists Mattia Preti, Matteo Perez d’Aleccio, and Caravaggio. The highlight is most certainly Caravaggios’s masterpiece, The Beheading of St John the Baptist. This large oil painting is the only work of art by the famous yet troubled Italian artist that he signed. Visitors can see the masterpiece hanging in the Oratory Room.
After viewing the paintings be sure to walk through Perellos Hall, which contains a wonderful set of Flemish tapestries. The entire set includes twenty nine pieces including scenes from the life of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the Apostles. Some of the tapestries are hanging in the Vestments Hall, which also contains a number of sacred silk vestments donated by various Grand Masters. This part of the cathedral is actually more like a museum and is just one more reason to visit.
And finally, there is Ciro Ferri Hall that contains a number of manuscripts from the early part of the Knights stay on the island of Malta. Called choral books, these beautiful historical documents are set using a gold leaf background and contain the original hand painted initials of the Grand Masters.
Today St John’s Co-Cathedral is one of the most visited sites in Malta. The cathedral is open Monday to Friday from 9:30 to 16:30 with the last entry at 16:00. On Saturdays the cathedral is only open from 9:30 to 12:30 and it is closed on Sundays and Holidays. The entrance fee for adults is set at 6 euro. Seniors get a discounted rate of 4.60 euro while the student rate is just 3.50 euro. Children under the age of 12 are free.
Your entry fee includes the use of a handheld audio guide for the 24 stops in the cathedral. It is available in six different languages: Maltese, English, Italian, French, German and Spanish.
As with any place of worship it is requested that visitors dress decently when entering the cathedral so this means no exposed shoulders. Photos are allowed inside the cathedral, except in the Oratory, but the use of a flash is prohibited.
As you exit the cathedral through the book store one can’t help but marvel at the grandeur of this place. Not only is this one of Europe’s grandest cathedrals but it is also a treasure trove of history. I find it fascinating that this small island has been at the forefront of European history and has actually been the site of some of Europe’s most historical battles from the time of the Crusades right up to World War II. Enjoy your visit to Malta and St John’s Co-Cathedral.
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© 2013 Bill De Giulio