The Cathedral

27 Feb

dsc02314  St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta, Malta is internationally known as the home of Caravaggio’s “Beheading of St. John the Baptist” and “St. Jerome” as well as being considered a magnificent expression of High Baroque architecture and religious art.


For over 200 years St. John’s was the conventual church of the Knights of St. John (The Knights of Malta.) The Grand Masters and Knights, noblemen from the most important families of Europe, donated gifts of high artistic and monetary value to the church for the glory of their mission. The mission was the protection of the Catholic faith and Europe from the attacks of the Ottoman Turks.


The marble floor of the Cathedral is composed of the tombstones of the knights fallen in battle. Throughout the cathedral one finds skull and crossbones worked into designs symbolic of the deep awareness of death as an ever present element in the knight’s earthly life.


After the Great Siege of 1565 by the Ottoman Turks, the Knights vowed to turn the island of Malta into a fortress that befitted a military (and holy) order with a capital city worthy of these illustrious noblemen. The knights sited their austere church at the heart of the city of Valletta.


The facade of the church is plain with a fortress-like feel reflecting the sober mood of the knights after the suffering in the Great Siege. The exterior does not hint at the opulence within. The interior of the church was completely redesigned in the flamboyant Baroque style in the early 17th century. It is the contrast between the severity of the exterior and the extravagance of the interior that makes St. John’s Co-Cathedral unique in the world.


Mattia Preti was the Calabrian artist who transformed the interior of the Cathedral. Starting with the vault, he depicted episodes from the life of St. John the Baptist, the patron saint of the knights. According to designs prepared by Preti, the original plain walls were covered with elaborate carvings creating a riot of gilded foliage, flowers, angels and medallions.



One of the pillars particularly captured my attention, a gilded corkscrew. I couldn’t help but wonder if this design had been adopted by the Knights exposure to the architectural details of the Turks they conquered. Does anyone know?


Every surface is gilded and detailed in the extravagant high baroque style. Walls, ceilings and floors are canvases for limitless pieces of decorative art. Sculpture, most often of marble, adorns the side altars of the church.



Paintings are also found throughout the Cathedral depicting saints, often in battle.


People travel from throughout the world to see Caravaggio’s spellbinding “Beheading of St. John,” an altar piece, the largest painting of the artist and the only work he ever signed. It is now housed with Caravaggio’s second masterpiece,”St. Jerome” in the church’s oratory, a special room of devotion.

The Beheading of John the Baptist – Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio

The Beheading of John the Baptist – Michaelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio


Note: Flash photography was not allowed inside St. John’s Co-Cathedral. Available light was used. You will see a degree of blurring in these photographs due to slow shudder speed.






4 Responses to “The Cathedral”

  1. Nancy Oster February 28, 2017 at 6:28 pm #

    I love being on these visits with you.

    • Jill March 1, 2017 at 1:44 am #

      Hi Nancy, So nice to know you are still with us. We love our armchair travelling friends.

  2. Derek February 27, 2017 at 11:28 pm #

    Love that Caravaggio. And the setting, of course.
    Any mention of the Papal kerfuffle last month with the Knights of Malta?

    • Jill February 27, 2017 at 11:39 pm #

      No none. But love the word kerfuffle. So British.

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