facade of St. John's Co-Cathedral

St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta is not only the most visited tourist attraction on the island, but also one of the most beautiful churches and religious monuments in Europe. It is located in the center of the city of Valletta and was built between the years 1573 and 1578, the years of the foundation of the city following the Grand Siege of Malta. Its austere exterior reminds a military fortification, and this is no coincidence. The architect who was commissioned with designing and building the church was Gerolamo Cassar. Descendant of a well known Maltese family, Cassar was a knight, a military architect and an inventor of military machines during the siege. His architectural contributions to the shape took by the city of Valletta include beside the Co-Cathedral the Palace of the Grand Masters and several of the knights auberges – actually palaces that are today part of the Valletta original look.

the Co-Cathedral Interior

The simple exterior makes even stronger the impact of the viewer with the rich decoration, opulence and elegance of the Baroque style interior. Much of the design of the interior is attributed to master Mattia Preti, who also authored some of the paintings in the chapels and ceiling. The big WOW reaction of many of the visitors is by no means exaggerated. Some of the relief and decorations are not built separately and applied to the structure, but carved directly in the limestone which is the material of building of choice in Malta, the church being no exception.

tombstones in the Co-Cathedral floor

It is not only the walls but also the floor of the co-cathedral that impresses the visitors. Inlaid marble tombs cover the almost the whole surfaces, and each of the tombs is a work of art by itself, inviting admiration for their beauty and reflection about the passing nature of life and things in this world.

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chapel

On the two sides of the church there are several splendid chapels, each one richly decorated with paintings, sculptures and carvings. Eight of them are dedicated to the eight langues that were used by the knights of St. John coming from the different nations of Europe.

a Grand Master's Tomb

Also of a great beauty are some of the tombs of the Grand Masters and bishops who are buried in the church. For more than two centuries between the inauguration until the occupation of the island by Napoleon’s army the church hosted the throne of the Grand Master. During the British rule this was taken over by the governor, and now it belongs to the bishop, who shares his time between this church and the one in Mdina, hence the designation of the church as a co-cathedral.

Beheading of St. John the Baptist by Caravaggio - source http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/St._John%27s_Co-Cathedral

The museum of the cathedral hosts several remarkable pieces of art as well as objects and documents related to the functions and history of the building. The cornerstones of the collection are beyond any doubt the two works of Caravaggio painted during the artist’s stay here in 1607 and 1608. Running away from Rome where he had killed a man in a street fight, Caravaggio arrived here and was made in a short time knight (quite an exception as he was no soldier and not of noble origin) and commissioned to paint several works among which the two kept nowadays in the cathedral museum. He soon got himself again into trouble, fought a fellow knight, was arrested and imprisoned, to escape in 1608 from prison and from the island. He was promptly expelled from the order. Seeing the two works at their original place was a beautiful continuation of the visit I had paid a few days ago at the great Caravaggio retrospective at Quirinale in Rome.

St. Jerome Writing by Caravaggio - source http://www.stjohnscocathedral.com/caravaggio.html

The co-cathedral has a beautiful web site - http://www.stjohnscocathedral.com/