St John’s Co-Cathedral (Maltese: Kon-Katidral ta’ San Gwann) is a Roman Catholic co-cathedral in Valletta, Malta, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. It was built by the Order of St. John between 1572 and 1577, having been commissioned by Grand Master Jean de la Cassière as the Conventual Church of Saint John (Maltese: Knisja Konventwali ta’ San Gwann).
The church was designed by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, who designed several of the more prominent buildings in Valletta. In the 17th century, its interior was redecorated in the Baroque style by Mattia Preti and other artists. The interior of the church is considered to be one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral was commissioned in 1572 by Jean de la Cassière, Grand Master of the Order of St. John. It was initially named, in the Italian common language of the time, as Chiesa Conventuale di San Giovanni Battista. The church was designed by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, who was also responsible for the construction of many important buildings in Valletta. It is held that Cassar went to Rhodes to bring a plan of an already existing church that was by then converted to a Mosque, to use it as a model for the present Co-cathedral. However Cassar still took decisions over the final design and made modifications, and thus became the sole architect of the Co-cathedral. Once St. John’s was completed in 1577, it became the new conventual church of the Order instead of St. Lawrence’s Church in the Order’s former headquarters Birgu. Construction of the oratory and sacristy began in 1598, during the magistracy of Martin Garzez, and they were completed by Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt in 1604.
For the first century of its existence, the church’s interior was modestly decorated. However, in the 1660s, Grand Master Raphael Cotoner ordered the redecoration of the interior so as to rival the churches of Rome. Calabrian artist Mattia Preti was in charge of the embellishment, and effectively completely transformed the interior in the Baroque style. The annexes on the side of the cathedral were added later and feature the coat of arms of Grand Master António Manoel de Vilhena who reigned from 1722 to 1736.
St. John’s remained the conventual church of the Order until the latter was expelled from Malta with the French occupation in 1798. Over time, the church grew to equal prominence with the archbishop’s cathedral at Mdina. In the 1820s, the Bishop of Malta was allowed to use St John’s as an alternative see and it thus formally became a Co-cathedral.
In 1831, Sir Walter Scott called the cathedral a “magnificent church, the most striking interior [he had] ever seen.” Later on in the 19th century, Giuseppe Hyzler, a leader of the Nazarene movement, removed some of the Baroque art of the cathedral, including the ornate altar in the Chapel of the Langue of France.
The cathedral’s exterior was slightly damaged by aerial bombardment in 1941, during World War II, barely escaping total destruction. The contents of the cathedral had been transferred elsewhere before the bombardment, so no works of art were lost.
The cathedral was restored between the late 1980s and the early 1990s. In 2001, the St. John’s Co-Cathedral Foundation was set up to administer and conserve the cathedral and its museum. The sides of the cathedral were restored between 2008 and 2010, and a complete restoration of the exterior began in July 2014 directed by architect Jean Frendo and eight restorers. Restoration of the central part of the façade was completed in September 2015 and project completion was expected in 2017.
Today, the cathedral is one of the most popular tourist attractions in Malta, and is listed on the National Inventory of the Cultural Property of the Maltese Islands.
Notable Works of Art
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, the largest canvas he painted 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 Saint Jerome Writing.
Another impressive feature of the church is the collection of marble tombstones in the nave in which were buried important knights. The more important knights were placed closer to the front of the church. These tombstones, richly decorated with in-laid marble and with the coats of arms of the knight buried below as well as images relevant to that knight, often telling a story of triumph in battle, form a rich visual display in the church.
Adjoining to the church is the St John’s Co-Cathedral Museum containing art objects. Among the contents of the museum there are the Flemish Tapestries designed by Peter Paul Rubens, which were donated by Grand Master Ramon Perellos y Roccaful, paintings of Grand Masters Jean de la Cassière, Nicolas Cotoner and Manuel Pinto da Fonseca, and paintings which were formerly in the side chapels such as St. George killing the Dragon by Francesco Potenzano.
St. John’s Co-Cathedral is located in the centre of Valletta, and it is a short walk away from the bus terminus near City Gate. The main entrance of the cathedral is in St John’s Square, but the visitors’ entrance is from Great Siege Square in Republic Street, facing the Law Courts.
The cathedral is open to the public from Mondays to Fridays between 09:30 and 16:30 (last admission at 16:00), and on Saturdays between 09:30 and 12:30 (last admission at 12:00). It is closed on Sundays and public holidays. The entrance fee is €10 for adults, €7.50 for students or senior citizens, while children under the age of 12 enter free of charge when accompanied by an adult. This fee includes the provision of audio guides available in Maltese, English, Italian, French, German, Spanish, Japanese and Russian.
People visiting the cathedral for Mass only do not have to pay the entrance fee.
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