Visiting St John's Co-Cathedral: Valletta, Malta

Updated on December 12, 2017
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Traveling has always been one of my passions. It exposes us to new cultures, experiences, and makes the world a better, more tolerant place.

St John's Co-Cathedral
St John's Co-Cathedral | Source

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.

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St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta:
Saint John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta, Malta

get directions

History

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.

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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.

Grand Harbor of Valletta where much of the fighting during the Great Siege took place.
Grand Harbor of Valletta where much of the fighting during the Great Siege took place. | Source

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.

Valletta
Valletta | Source

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

St John's Co-Cathedral
St John's Co-Cathedral | Source

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.

Marble Floor Tombs
Marble Floor Tombs | Source
High Altar of St John's Cathedral
High Altar of St John's Cathedral | Source

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.

Cathedral ceiling
Cathedral ceiling | Source
Silver Sanctuary Lamp held by two Angels
Silver Sanctuary Lamp held by two Angels | Source

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.

Caravaggio's Beheading of St John the Baptist
Caravaggio's Beheading of St John the Baptist | Source

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.

Vestments of the Grand Masters
Vestments of the Grand Masters | Source

Visitor Information

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.

One of the nine Chapels, The Chapel of the Langue of Aragon
One of the nine Chapels, The Chapel of the Langue of Aragon | Source

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.

Malta

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Vallette, Malta:
Valletta, Malta

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Malta:
Malta

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Questions & Answers

    © 2013 Bill De Giulio

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      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Chauncey. Yes, we did this via a cruise. It's a great way to get a taste of Malta. Depending on how long you are in port you can see Valletta in a day. I would love to go back to see the rest of the island. It's a fascinating place with incredible history.

      • Chauncey St Clair profile image

        Chauncey St Clair 

        4 years ago from New York City

        These are great photos and nice encapsulated history. I'm dying to go to Malta. I'm thinking that probably the best way to see it is via a cruise. Did you do that?

      • tehgyb profile image

        Don Colfax 

        4 years ago from Easton, Pennsylvania

        Your support is much appreciated!

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Don, thank you. You have one thing that I don't have, lots of time :) You'll get there. And thank you for your service to our country, I very much appreciate your sacrifice.

      • tehgyb profile image

        Don Colfax 

        4 years ago from Easton, Pennsylvania

        Bill, thanks for another beautful Hub.

        I have to say, I am quite jealous of your travels. Seems I have some catching up to do my friend.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thank you Tolovaj. Glad you enjoyed the visit to St. John's Co-Cathedral. You could spend all day there. Happy Holidays.

      • Tolovaj profile image

        Tolovaj 

        4 years ago

        Although I always visit churches, museums and other interesting places when I travel, I have never been in such spectacular building. Thanks for all the info, I know Saturday would not be enough for me. Only three hours? No way!

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Miragi. Yes, this one was more work than most :) But it was fun and having seen it first hand I really wanted to bring more than just pictures and opening/closing times to the readers. There is a lot of history to this cathedral and to Malta in general. It's really a fascinating place. Thanks so much for stopping by. Have a Merry Christmas.

      • Miragi profile image

        Miragi 

        4 years ago from Ohio

        You put some serious work into this piece! Thank you for sharing. It's exquisite and breathtaking!!

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thank you AvineshP. It was a beautiful cathedral. Hope you get there someday soon. Have a nice weekend.

      • AvineshP profile image

        Avinesh Prahladi 

        4 years ago from Chandigarh

        'St John's Co-Cathedral' and 'Silver Sanctuary Lamp held by two Angels' just mesmerizes me. I would like to explore this place for sure.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Valleyport. Lucky you to be visiting Malta soon. What a fascinating place. Glad you enjoyed the tour and thanks for the visit and comment.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi tirelesstraveler. Yep, that's the thing with this cathedral, the simple exterior hides an unbelievable interior. When you go to Valletta make sure you tour this cathedral, I can promise you that you will not regret it. Many thanks for the visit, have a great week.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thanks Jim. You wife and daughter are correct, it's a beautiful island. I certainly hope to return someday when I can spend more time there. Thanks for stopping by.

      • profile image

        Valleypoet 

        4 years ago

        Malta is a place I intend to visit soon, and your hub has certainly got the message across....that the cathedral in Valetta is an awesome place to visit...what a great hub this is:-))

      • tirelesstraveler profile image

        Judy Specht 

        4 years ago from California

        A friend of ours visited Malta last summer. They didn't go inside the cathedral because it didn't look that interesting. I showed her your hub and she regretted not going inside.

        We are planning a trip to that area and we will certainly go in if we get to Malta.

      • Jimjih profile image

        Jim Holbrook 

        4 years ago from Richmond, Virginia

        My wife and daughter visited Malta twice in the early 1990s. They still talk about the beauty of the island.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Jason. Thank you. I want to go back now :) Appreciate the visit and comment. Have a great day.

      • Jason Matthews profile image

        Jason Matthews 

        4 years ago from North Carolina

        Great hub! I want to visit now!

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thank you FA. You hit the nail on the head, this cathedral was beautiful and rivals anything I've seen outside of St. Peter's in the Vatican . They really knew how to build build cathedrals back then. Glad you enjoyed the tour and thank you for the vote, pin, etc. Have a great day.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Heidi. Thank you. This place really was stunning. Malta was an amazing place and I can't wait to return to spend more time there. Never say never, who knows the places you'll get to someday? Thank you for the vote, etc. Have a great day.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thank you tirelesstravler. Who knew? Malta in general is quite the place. Lots of history, amazing buildings, and archeological sites. This cathedral was beyond description, just amazing. Thanks for stopping by.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Prasetio. Thank you. Glad you enjoyed the tour. It's a beautiful place and the cathedral was stunning. Many thanks for the vote.

      • FlourishAnyway profile image

        FlourishAnyway 

        4 years ago from USA

        Unbelievably beautiful hub. I have never even heard of this place, so I really appreciate being able to learn about it from your excellent hub. Voted up and more, plus pinning. Wow!

      • heidithorne profile image

        Heidi Thorne 

        4 years ago from Chicago Area

        Just absolutely stunning photography as usual! Since I may never travel to these places, glad I got to see them through your lens. Voted up & beautiful. Have a great day!

      • tirelesstraveler profile image

        Judy Specht 

        4 years ago from California

        Stunning, this hub is absolutely stunning. I had no idea Malta was so beautiful. Wonderful hub.

      • prasetio30 profile image

        prasetio30 

        4 years ago from malang-indonesia

        Wow.....Beautiful, brother. I really enjoy the virtual tour in St John's Co-Cathedral, Valletta. I can't wait to see this place in person. Thanks for writing and sharing with us. I love the pictures as well. Voted up:-)

        Prasetio

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thanks Linda. The cathedral actually looks like many other buildings in Valletta with that somewhat plain exterior. It really gives no indication of what's inside. On the inside however, oh my. They sure knew how to build cathedrals. Have a great day and thanks for the share.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Joelle. It was a lot to take in. Everywhere you looked was something amazing. The vestments were wonderful as were the tapestries but I didn't have a good picture of them :( Glad you enjoyed the tour. Have a great day.

      • AliciaC profile image

        Linda Crampton 

        4 years ago from British Columbia, Canada

        The history is very interesting and the photos are wonderful, Bill. The contrast between the exterior and interior of the cathedral is dramatic! I would love to spend time visiting and photographing European cathedrals. Thanks for a very enjoyable article. I'll share this hub.

      • kidscrafts profile image

        kidscrafts 

        4 years ago from Ottawa, Canada

        What a magnificent place to visit, Bill! The cathedral seems to be a big piece of art! Whatever the direction you look at, from the floor to the ceiling, to the walls and the golden pillars, everything is art!

        The vestments of the Grand Masters are also beautiful with an intricate embroidery!

        Thank you for sharing your trip and pictures to Malta with us :-)

        Have a beautiful day!

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Thank you ologsinquito. It was a beautiful cathedral to visit. In fact the whole town of Valletta was beautiful. Thanks for stopping by, have a great day.

      • ologsinquito profile image

        ologsinquito 

        4 years ago from USA

        It looks beautiful. Thanks for the lovely photos.

      • bdegiulio profile imageAUTHOR

        Bill De Giulio 

        4 years ago from Massachusetts

        Hi Bill. Same here. Especially as Malta was the scene of heavy fighting in WWII. Thankfully these treasures survived. We've seen some great cathedrals in Italy but this one ranks right up there with the best of them, it was amazing. Thanks for stopping by, have a great weekend.

      • billybuc profile image

        Bill Holland 

        4 years ago from Olympia, WA

        I'm always amazed that buildings like this one survived the bombings of World War II. Thank goodness they did because they are exquisite. Well done as always, Bill. Thanks for the tour and have a great weekend.

        bill

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