St John's Co-Cathedral
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There are two things that we find are most striking once you’ve visited the magnificent St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta . Firstly, it’s probably the first and only co-cathedral you have ever been in and secondly, it has one of the most jaw-droppingly stunning interiors of almost any building you’ll see … created using a very cunning method!
We’ll deal with the co-cathedral bit later, but first here’s how to guarantee your décor is going to up there with the best – and we’re talking on a global scale here. Though ingenious, the concept was not terribly sophisticated and worked like this.
In Malta, in the 16th century, the men in charge of the island were the Knights of Malta. In 1565 those Knights led the island to a massively significant victory against the Ottoman Empire in what cane to be known as the Great Siege, thus safeguarding the Catholic future of the island and possibly that of many other nations besides.
In thanks, other Catholic countries bestowed huge financial gifts on the knights, who spent the money on protecting the island by creating a new, heavily-fortified capital city – Valletta.
But Valletta needed a new cathedral so it was wisely decreed that this building would be dedicated to the Knights, who were not only incredibly religious but loaded too! Almost to a man the knights rose to the occasion and decided they really should and would provide gifts of massive artistic and/or monetary value to decorate the inside of the new church.
The outstanding piece turned was a painting by the legendary artist, Caravaggio, called The Beheading of St John the Baptist. This acknowledged masterpiece was created by the acknowledged Italian genius and hell-raiser in 1608. Caravaggio was a brilliant artist, some experts argue he was the finest ever, and he led a full and ‘interesting’ life! It was one of these ‘interesting’ episodes that saw him wind up in Malta.
At the time the artist was on the run from his native Rome after one of his frequent bar brawls resulted in the death of a fellow drinker. He fled first to Naples to escape Roman law then over the sea to Malta, where the Maltese Knights of the order of St John were thrilled at having such a famous artist on their island.
They made him an honorary knight and commissioned him to paint this magnificent work featuring their ‘sponsor’ (ie St John) for the altar of the new cathedral.
Not only was it the largest work Caravaggio ever created but it was also the only one he ever saw fit to put his signature on. It is an acknowledged masterpiece of immense skill and standing.
Prior to employing Caravaggio to do an interior décor job, the great Maltese architect, Girolamo Cassar, was enlisted for the building. His designs were executed between 1573 and 1578.
This was a time when the threat of the Ottoman Empire returning was considering to be serious so the exterior was deliberately dulled down. Cassar’s intention was to maintain the appearance of a continuing line of fortifications within the city.
This was in stark contrast to the ‘all bells and whistles’ stunning interior, which was largely the work of an Italian artist – and another knight - Mattia Preti. He came up with the intricately carved stone walls, all done in-situ, and painted the vaulted ceiling and side-altars with scenes from the life of St John.
It is spectacular and a must-see if you visit Valletta. As for that Co-Cathedral tag, well that results from an arrangement in the 1820s, when the Bishop of Malta, who was based at Mdina, was allowed to use St John’s as an alternative place of worship. From then on it was known as the Co-Cathedral.
The cathedral is open to visitors from 9.30am to 4.30pm Monday to Friday and 9.30am to 12.30pm on Saturdays but is closed on Sundays. Standard admission is €6 for adults but it’s cheaper at €4.60 for OAPs, €3.50 for students and free for under 12s.
You’ll find it in the heart of Valletta in St John’s Street. From the city entrance, walk up the main central avenue called Republic Street. St John’s Street is about the fourth road that runs across it. Turn right here and you’ll find the cathedral just a short walk away.
Address: St John Street, Valletta VLT 1156
Phone: +356 2123 9628
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