on February 28, 2011
The Co-Cathedral of St John should be top of list of things to do for anyone visiting Valletta. It may look restrained from the exterior but the interior decoration is pure over-the-top baroque frenzy.St John’s was the private church of the Knights. As such it was also one of the richest churches in Malta. In time its reputation earned it the rather unusual title of ‘co-cathedral’, bestowed upon it by the Pope in 1816. This meant that while the original cathedral (St Paul’s in Mdina) kept its status, St John’s was raised to an equal position, allowing the local bishop to use either. Yet it was its role as the Knights’ conventual chapel that made it the attraction it is today.The exterior is relatively sober – understandably considering that construction started just after the defeat of the Siege. The sun dappling the amber stone saves it from severity however, and its clock-tower is well worth a look for its three dials that tell passers-by not just the time, but also the date and the day of the week. (There are two towers in total, each containing bells that clonked merrily every 15 minutes – not great when our hotel stood adjacent to the cathedral on Misraħ San Ġwann!).I don’t know what I was expecting from the interior of the cathedral – probably not much. But I was completely blown away by the décor inside – baroque decoration taken to the n-th degree. No one could accuse this church of being under-baroqued. Now personally I tend to find baroque art and architecture a trial – too florid for my tastes. However here the Knights, their architect Geralamo Cassar and their interior designer Mattia Preti went so overboard that the interior of St John’s is an absolute riot. The central barrel-vaulted nave has a ceiling oil-painted with scenes from the life of John the Baptist. The altar at the far end is so weighed down with gilt and silver it looks like Aladdin’s cave. The nave is flanked by separate side-chapels, each devoted to one of the different langues of the Order (subsections of the Order divided up by national backgound – there are separate langues for Aragon, Auverne, Provence, France, Italy, Castille and Portugal, Germany and the Anglo-Bavarian league). Each sidechapel is decorated according to that langue’s chosen aesthetic. The walls are deeply carved with relief decoration, any grand masters hailing from that langue are honoured with grandiose 17th-18th century tombs, and there are painting of St John and other favoured saints. For my money though the most wonderful aspect of the church is its floor. The floor of the entire building is a patchwork quilt of tomb slabs, each honouring a different knight. But rather than plain grey slabs of rock each slab is an artwork of red, yellow, black, white, pink, grey and blue marble, each with their own individual design – most being memento mori-esque depictions of cheerful skulls and introspective skeletons.Passing from the main body of the church visitors enter the Oratory. The Oratory has two piantings by the artist Caravaggio who was made a Knight of the Order whilst on the lam after fatally knifing a man in Rome in an argument over a tennis match.There is a moody depiction of St Jerome but the highlight is the huge alterpiece The Beheading of John the Baptist (1608), the only work that Caravaggio ever actually signed. In this depiction all the action is skewed off to the left of the frame, frozen in mid-action, as the executioner reaches for his knife to finish the job. It is a scene of Caravaggio’s trademark chiaroscuro and grim realism. There are no halos or angels in his take on the scene, just the grisly death of a man, a very human tragedy. Incidentally just a few months after completion of his masterpiece Caravaggio was arrested by the Knights for an unknown offence and he had to flee justice once again.There is a museum attached to the co-cathedral containing some illuminated song-books, some tapestries and vestments, and oil paintings of various grand masters. In my opinion these can be rushed past.I think the Co-Cathedral of St John has to be the most fascinating sight in Valletta. Its interior completely subverted what I had imagined it would be like from the outside. The entrance fee of €6 is reasonable, and with that you get a very informative audioguide that I do recommend listening to to ensure you get the full scoop on this remarkable church.
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