Before visiting Malta, you will undoubtedly have done some research – places to visit, historical sites to see and so forth. In your search you will have come across a massive but quite plain looking church, located in the middle of Valletta, the European City of Culture 2018. St John’s Co-Cathedral should definitely be on your ‘must-see’ list, even if churches aren’t usually on your holiday itinerary. This is not your regular, run of the mill church: this Co-Cathedral is a spectacular example of Baroque art, in all its pompous glory.
Valletta is Malta’s best connected city, with almost all buses on the island ending their trip there. Finding a bus to Valletta is easy – check out the bus stops in your area, and find the ones which have Valletta as their destination (quick tip, if you can’t manage to find it on one side of the street, try the other side!) If you’re living in Sliema, you can also get a ferry to Valletta, which also gives you a lovely little tour around the Harbour. Driving to Valletta can be a bit tricky, as parking within the city can be difficult, not to mention expensive. If you’re renting a car, you can park at the car park in Floriana, giving you easy access to the city while ensuring that your car is parked safely. As soon as you reach City Gate, reaching the Co-Cathedral is easy. Walk down Republic Street until you reach a crossroads, with a green kiosk selling flowers on your right. Turn right at this kiosk, and you’ll be able to behold the imposing structure of the church before you. It is essential to take a look at the Co-Cathedral before entering, as you’ll see a stark contrast from the outside to the inside.
In order to reach the visitor’s entrance, head back to Republic Street, walk slightly further up, and you’ll see the law court (huge Greek temple-style building) on your left. The visitor’s entrance will be on your right!
Upon entering, your eyes will need to adjust to the sheer number of embellishments found in the entrails of this church. There is something to see everywhere you look: from the marble tombs which cover the floor, to the gilded carvings of flowers, plants and angels on all the walls, to the marvellous fresco ceiling. The Co-Cathedral is dedicated to St John the Baptist, who was the patron saint of the Order of St John. Built in 1577 following the design of the famed Maltese architect Glormu Cassar, it was originally simply decorated, matching its exterior much more than it does today. The exterior was constructed to look like a fortress, plain and sturdy, withstanding attacks. During the seventeenth century, when the flamboyant Baroque style came to fashion, Grand Master Cotoner ordered a complete redecoration of the interior. He commissioned the renowned Italian artist Mattia Preti, who transformed the Co-Cathedral into the masterpiece we can still witness to this day.
Preti revamped the vaulted ceiling, and used it as a canvas for his depiction of the life of St John the Baptist, using illusionary effects which gave the impression that the ceiling was much more elaborate than it actually was. With his skilful use of colour, Preti created a masterpiece of illusionistic effects. The carvings on the walls were also perpetrated by this Calabrian artist, transforming what was once bare stone into a cornucopia of golden flowers and plants. The side chapels of the Cathedral were designated to the different languages of the Order, much like they each had their own auberge. These chapels are also lavishly decorated, and some contain some of the most impressive funereal memorials to the Grand Masters, most of which were done by Mattia Preti himself. One of the most impressive of these monuments is, befittingly, the monument to Grand Master Cotoner, which encapsulates his chivalry and military prowess in marble. This memorial can be found in the chapel of Aragon, on the opposite side of the visitor’s entrance.
Also worth noticing is the copiousness of tombstones on the floor of this artistic masterpiece. Inlaid with Latin inscriptions and a variety of symbols, these marble tombs are a unique feature of this Co-Cathedral, telling each Knight’s story in a distinctive way.
The sanctuary, being the focal point of the church, is also elaborately decorated, and features a stunning sculpture depicting the baptism of Christ, by the Italian sculptor Giuseppe Mazzoli. The white marble statues depicting Jesus Christ and his cousin are worked in the traditional Baroque style, giving movement to the sculpture. The central nave can now also be viewed from above, thanks to the restoration of the balcony which lies above the main door. This impressive gallery was restored recently, and is now open to the public.
Last but not least, in the Oratory which is located to the right of the main door, lie the magnificent paintings by Caravaggio. Michelangelo Merisi, better known as Caravaggio, graced the church with two paintings: one depicting Saint Jerome, and the altar piece showing the beheading of St John the Baptist. Both paintings display the artist’s expert use of the chiaroscuro effect as well as his harsh realism, and are both masterpieces in their own right. The painting portraying the beheading is the largest painting attributed to the artist, and the only one known to be signed. Caravaggio’s signature can be spotted underneath the pool of blood forming under the Saint’s head. This work of genius by itself is worth a visit to this Cathedral.
- Monday to Friday: 09.30hrs to 16.30hrs (last admission at 16.00hrs)
- Saturday: 09.30hrs to 12.30hrs (last admission at 12.00hrs)
- Closed on Sunday and Public Holidays.
- Adults: €10.00
- Seniors: €7.50
- Children under 12: Free (when accompanied by an adult)
- Students: €7.50