St. John's Co-Cathedral

Valletta, Malta

St. Johns Co-Cathedral was built by the Knights of Malta between 1573 and 1578, having been commissioned in 1572 by Grand Master Jean de la Cassière as the conventual church of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John, known as the Knights of Malta. The Church was designed by the Maltese military architect Glormu Cassar who designed several of the more prominent buildings in Valletta. The church is considered to be one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe and one of the world's great cathedrals.

The interior, in sharp contrast with the facade, is extremely ornate and decorated in the height of the Baroque period. The interior was largely decorated by Mattia Preti, the Calabrian artist and Knight. Preti designed the intricate carved stone walls and painted the vaulted ceiling and side altars with scenes from the life of St John. Interestingly, the figures painted into the ceiling next to each column initially appear to the viewer as three-dimensional statues, but on closer inspection we see that the artist cleverly created an illusion of three-dimensionality by his use of shadows and placement.The Maltese limestone from which the Cathedral is built lends itself particularly well to such intricate carving. The whole marble floor is an entire series of tombs, housing about 375 Knights and officers of the order. 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.

In 1666, a project for the main altar by Malta's greatest sculptor, Melchiorre Cafà, was approved and begun. Cafà intended a large sculpture group in bronze depicting the Baptism of Christ. Following Cafà's tragical death in 1667 in a foundry accident while working on this work in Rome, the plans were abandoned. Only in 1703, Giuseppe Mazzuoli, Cafà's only pupil, finished a marble group of the Baptism of Christ which might have been influenced by his master's undocumented designs but certainly is strongly dependent on a small baptism group by Alessandro Algardi.

The Cathedral contains eight rich chapels, each of which was dedicated to the patron saint of the 8 langues (or sections) of the Knights.

The painting depicting The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608) by Caravaggio (1571–1610) is the most famous work in the church. Considered one of Caravaggio's masterpieces and the only painting signed by the painter, the canvas is displayed in the Oratory for which it was painted. Restored in the late 1990s in Florence, this painting is one of Caravaggio's most impressive uses of the chiaroscuro style for which he is most famous with a circle of light illuminating the scene of St John's beheading at the request of Salome. The oratory also houses Caravaggio's St Jerome III (1607–1608).

Another impressive feature of the church is the collection of marble tombstones in the nave in which were buried important knights. The more important knights were placed closer to the front of the church. These tombstones, richly decorated with in-laid marble and with the coats of arms of the knight buried below as well as images relevant to that knight, often telling a story of triumph in battle, form a rich visual display in the church.

Adjoining to the church is the St John's Co-Cathedral Museum containing art objects. Among the contents of the museum there are the Tapestries of Grandmaster Fra Ramon Perellos de Roccaful, paintings of the following Grandmasters Fra Jean de la Cassiere, Fra Nicola Cottoner and Fra Emanuel Pinto de Fonseca, painting which were formerly in the side chapel such as St. George killing the Dragon by Francesco Potenzano.

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Founded: 1573-1578
Category: Religious sites in Malta

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4.7/5 (based on Google user reviews)

User Reviews

Lumi Codrescu (17 months ago)
Very clean and beautiful town.They constantly take care of their wonderful heritage. Worth seeing once in a lifetime :) I also strongly recommend to those in charge to protect (with glass?) the floors in the cathedral because the masterpieces of tomb stones will fade away in time and it's soooo pity!
heath (18 months ago)
Breathtaking experience. The audio guide was very helpful. From the outside, it doesn't look like much but a normal Church. But once you go in, there's beautiful gold walls, paintings by Caravaggio, and marble floors. It is a must see on the Jewel of the Mediterranean.
Zerzile um (2 years ago)
Beautiful place. Great organisation.. You get (with a ticket) guide on language that you choose. There's also an interesting little gift shop that is a part of a complex, where you can find many interesting books about Caravaggio and ect.
Maya Dacheva (2 years ago)
If you go to Valletta St. John's Co-Cathedral is a-must-visit-place where easily can spend at least an hour
Claire Marie Micallef (2 years ago)
If you are a tourist in Malta you have to visit here for sure.
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