St John’s Co Cathedral
St John’s 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 (Girolamo 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 severe exterior of the Cathedral, built immediately after the ending of the Great Siege of 1565, is reminiscent of a military fort. The façade has some interesting features. On the right are three clocks – one shows the time, one shows the day of the week and the other shows the date. In the middle is a balcony with balustrades. From this balcony was announced the name of the newly-elected grand-master. It was customary for the grand-master to throw golden coins on the people who were waiting in the square for the news. Under the balcony are three coat of arms. One is of Grand Master La Cassiere, who paid for the building of the Cathedral, one is of Bishop Torres who opened the Cathedral and the third is the coat of arms of religion. The columns on the main door are Tuscan, therefore massive and impressive.
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. Also noteworthy is the fact that the carving was all undertaken in-place (in-situ) rather than being carved independently and then attached to the walls (stucco). 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 Gafà, was approved and begun. Gafà intended a large sculpture group in bronze depicting the Baptism of Christ. Following Gafà’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, Gafà’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 interesting fact about this statue is that, although one sees two figures, they are in fact hewn out of one big solid marble block.
The decorations on the wall were all paid for by the two Cottoner brothers Raphael Cottoner and Nicholas Cottoner. These brothers were both grand-masters. In fact on the left hand side of the church one can see the monograms RC and NC.
St John’s Co Cathedral has 375 graves. The gravestones, all in marble, show the knights and grand-masters that are buried in this cathedral. On the top of each column is a plain white cross on a red background as, when the Order was formed, it adopted the Benedictine habit, which is a white cross on a red background – the cross of peace on the blood-stained fields of war. The eight-pointed cross, now known as the Maltese cross, came much later. Some historians say that the eight points signify the eight langues from where the Knights of St John came, while other historians say that, being a Religious Order, the four triangles are the four virtues and the eight points are the beatitudes coming out of the four virtues.
St John’s Co Cathedral has nine chapels – four on the right and five on the left.
Starting with the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament on the top right-hand side. The gates here are made of solid silver and, the icon of the Madonna above the tabernacle (in solid silver too), represents the Madonna of Philermos and it was brought to St John’s from the St Catherine of Italy chapel.
The next chapel belongs to one of the French languages Auvergne. It is dedicated to St Sebastian one of the early Christian martyrs. Here there is only one monument and it is dedicated to Grandmaster Annet de Clermont de Chattes – Gessan. His rule lasted only five months as then he died.
The next chapel is dedicated to Aragon, the Spanish language. Here is another picture by Mattia Preti. When the Knights of the Order of St John wanted to know what Mattia Preti could do they asked him to send over a painting before they commissioned him to do the vault. He sent this picture of St George on a white horse. They liked what they saw and commissioned Mattia Preti to paint the vault of St John’s Co Cathedral. In this chapel are four beautiful monuments to four Spanish grand-masters – Raphael Cottoner and his brother Nicholas, Martin DeRedin and a magnificent monument by Giuseppe Mazzuoli to Grand Master Perellos, who was a prince.
The last chapel on the right-hand side belongs to the language of Castile and Leon, the Portuguese language. All the pictures in this chapel are by Mattia Preti. Here there are two fine monuments dedicated to two Portuguese grandmasters – Manoel Pinto and Manoel de Vilhena.
On the other side, on the top left hand side is the Anglo-Bavarian chapel. When King Henry VIII quarreled with the Pope. King Henry disbanded the knights and took all their property. When they managed to join the order again, they joined to the Bavarian league – hence the Anglo-Bavarian chapel. This chapel is dedicated to St Charles Borromeo. The gates here, made of bronze, were once the gates to the chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. The next chapel is the chapel dedicated to the language of Province. It is dedicated to St Michael. The lunette here is by an unknown German artist, probably Lucas Killian. Here we have two monuments dedicated to two grandmasters from the region of Province – Jean Lascaris and Antoine de Paule. In this chapel from the top one can see the crypt which is no longer open to the public. Amongst other Grand masters is buried here Grand Master Jean Parisot de la Vallette, the grandmaster who was responsible for building Valletta.
Further down on the left is the chapel dedicated to the French language and to the Conversion of St Paul. Here there are three monuments of three French grand masters Adrien Wignacourt and Joachim Wignacourt and an impressive mausoleum dedicated to Emanuel de Rohan. In this chapel is a very beautiful monument. It is the only monument which has nothing to do with the order. It is dedicated to the Vicount of Beaujolais. He was the brother of king Louis Philippe. He was in Malta on holiday with his brother in 1808 and whilst on holiday he died. Being a person of royal birth, a beautiful monument was erected in his honor in the chapel for the French language.
Here there is only one monument of one Italian grandmaster – Gregorio Carafa. In this chapel there is also one of the paintings by the well-known artist Caravaggio – the St Jerome. This painting was stolen some years back. The thieves threatened to tear it up if they did not get the ransom. It was found some years later badly damaged. It was sent to Rome to be restored and now hangs where it was before.
The last chapel on the left was kept by the German language. This is also dedicated to the feast of the three kings – the Epiphany. Here there are no monuments dedicated to grandmasters. The reason being that the last and only German grandmaster was Ferdinand Von Hompesch and his reign lasted only one year. Grandmaster Hompesch died in Montpelier. Ironic as it may sound this was the only chapel in St John’s to be damaged by the Luftwaffe. The chapel was restored after the war. Although St John’s was never directly hit during the blitz of World War II but it received near misses notably when the Auberge d’Auverne and Casa Caccia received direct hits. Both buildings were situated in Republic Street which comes to the left side of St John’s. During one of these hits the German Chapel was damaged. Another bomb came on the buildings in front of St John’s (where St John Square is now). The blast blew the main door up to the main altar of the Co Cathedral.
Of great interest in St John’s Co Cathedral is the Oratory. 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). This picture is five by three meters in size. Mattia Preti painted the pictures in the Oratorium, around the picture of Caravaggio, to harmonize with it. Caravaggio came to Malta in 1606 probably serving a penal sentence on one of the Order’s galleys. He found favour with the Order and in the Oratory itself he was allowed to join this elite Order. He was very proud of the fact so much so that the beheading of St John is the only one signed by Caravaggio. There is an ‘F’ in the blood coming out of the blood of the head of St John. He signed ‘F’ because being a religious order they called each other Frate, which means brother. Caravaggio was not his real name. His real name was Michelangelo Merisi or Merissi from Caravaggio, which is a little town outside Milan, where he was born. His father was an architect. Caravaggio came after the Renaissance, where everything had to be perfect and everyone had to be beautiful and well-clad. This, Caravaggio felt, did not show the real soul of the artist.
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.
The Flemish Tapestries
The set of Flemish Tapestries at St John’s Co-Cathedral was the gift made to the church by the Aragonese Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccaful upon his election in 1697. The tapestries are the largest complete set in the world and consist of twenty-nine pieces ordered from the Brussels atelier of Judocus de Vos.
The tapestries are woven entirely from the finest wool and silk yarns and measure 6 meters in height. The overwhelming dimensions and the exuberant character of the designs based on cartoons prepared by the renowned artist Peter Paul Rubens render this set one of the most spectacular interpretations of baroque art. By 1701 the set had reached Malta and brought the embellishment of the church to a climax. The full length portrait of Grand Master Perellos hanging majestically over the doorway had a lasting impression as the visitor exited the church.
The entire set of tapestries consists of fourteen large scenes depicting the life of Christ and allegories and fourteen panels representing the Virgin Mary, Christ the Saviour and the Apostles. This grand set of tapestries portrays the principal and fundamental Divine truths of the Catholic faith and was intended to convey a message, that is, the supremacy of the Catholic Church and the fame and grandeur of the Grand Master and the Order. The tapestries were originally suspended from the main cornice along the nave of the church during important occasions such as the feast of St John the Baptist.