St. John’s Co-Cathedral
St. John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta.
Commissioned in 1572 by Grand Master Jean de la Cassière as the conventual church of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St. John and designed by the celebrated Maltese military architect Gerolamo Cassar, St. John’s Co-Cathedral stands as a unique monument of international importance. The church is dedicated to St John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Order.
Building was completed on St. John’s in 1577. The plain façade flanked by two large bell towers is austere and has the character of a fortress reflecting the sober mood of the Order after the Great Siege. The nave is 53 metres in length and 15 metres wide with side chapels on either side. These chapels were assigned to the various langues according to seniority. The French, Italian and Aragonese langues, being prominent, were placed closest to the altar.
As the dawn of the 17th century ushered in the new Baroque style, Grand Master Cotoner ordered the redecoration of the Church’s interior. The Knights were eager to rival the great churches of Rome and the era’s flamboyant and demonstrative character provided ample material. They donated gifts of high artistic value and made enormous contributions to enrich it with only the best works of art by leading artists available to them.
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. 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.
In 1941, during the Second World War, St. John’s Co-Cathedral suffered severe damage as a result of a bombing attack over Valletta. Part of the Loggia on Merchants Street suffered most as the church narrowly escaped total annihilation. Fortunately, the contents had been transferred elsewhere in good time.