This splendid Church was built between 1573 and 1577 during the reign of Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere. St. John's, which was the Order's conventual church, was accorded Co-Cathedral status (the main Cathedral being the one at Mdina) by Pope Pius VII in 1816.
The exterior of the Church is rather austere, but the interior is a blaze of baroque architecture and sculpture. The massive vault is painted by Mattia Preti, illustrating episodes from the life of St. John the Baptist. The spacious nave is flanked on either side by the chapels of the various Langues of the Order. The Chapels are decorated with sumptuous monuments of the Grand Masters and with precious works of art.
Both the church and its oratory are paved with marble tombstones, under which lie the remains of the knights. There are altogether 364 slabs, all of which bear Latin inscriptions exalting the merits and deeds of the Knights of the Order.
The Oratory, which forms part of the Church, is noted for Caravaggio's masterpiece 'The Beheading of St. John.' Another excellent Caravaggio painting, 'St. Jerome,' can be seen at the Chapel of Italy inside the Church.
The Cathedral Museum contains priceless works of arts, ancient hymn books, sacred vestments and the famous Flemish Tapestries. Until recently, the tapestries were hung in the Cathedral nave on special festivities; the last occasion being the Pope's visit in May 1990. At present, the tapestries are on display inside the Museum.
A number of booklets and other specialised publications are on sale at the Cathedral gift shop. These give details of the history and the art treasures of this unique monument. Entrance is from Merchants Street.
Saint John’s co-Cathedral - The Jewel in the Crown
Malta is blessed with a rich architectural legacy. Almost every civilization and coloniser has left buildings of note starting with the hugely impressive megalithic remains and continuing down the line with the islands’ first, and perhaps reluctant, nod to 21st century architecture – the new parliament designed by the eminent Italian architect Renzo Piano.
The Knights of St. John’s 268 year rule very much shaped Malta’s built environment with miles of bastions, forts and palaces which still define the islands.
But if one were to pick one building that exemplifies a peak of achievement like no other then that would certainly be Saint John’s co-Cathedral in Valletta - considered to be one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe and certainly one of the world's great cathedrals. The cathedral was built shortly after the Great Siege and its design was entrusted to the Maltese military architect Glormu Cassar. Little wonder then that the cathedral’s austere façade is so fortress-like as to be almost forgettable…
But once inside the story is a very different one. It is here that one is likely to run out of superlatives in attempting to come to describe this magnificent building. The knights certainly went all out to create an interior quite unlike any other and no expense was spared in the embellishment of their main place of worship. The cathedral’s walls are richly carved and the monuments to the various Grandmasters fill almost every available space. The church is the proud owner of two paintings by Caravaggio – including his largest and only signed canvas The Beheading of Saint John, commissioned for the church’s Oratory where it hangs to this day. The Knights employed the Calabrian artist Mattia Preti for the most ambitious part of the church’s décor – the magnificent cycle of ceiling paintings depicting the life of the saint. The renowned Maltese sculptor Melchiorre Gafa – at the time making a name for himself in Rome - was commissioned for the apse’s sculpture of the Baptism of Christ. Sadly his early demise meant that the work was never completed and the project was eventually entrusted to Gafa’s only pupil, the Italian Giuseppe Mazzuoli.
Not to be overlooked is the cathedral’s magnificent floor – made up of around 364 knights’ tombstones in inlaid marble laid one next to the other. In the adjoining museum one finds a fine set of large Flemish tapestries which used to hang in the church on special feast days.
The cathedral’s small crypt contains the ornate tombs of some of the prominent Grand Masters – among them Jean Parisot de Valette – the founder of the city.
No visit to the islands is complete without a visit to this magnificent church – the apex of the Knights’ contribution to their island home, indeed the jewel in the crown of their artistic legacy.
Churches in Malta & Gozo
Museums & Galleries in Malta & Gozo
Saint John’s co-Cathedral is open to visitors from Monday to Friday: 09.30 to 16.30 (last admission at 16.00) Saturdays: 09.30 to 12.30 (last admission at 12.00). It is closed on Sunday and Public Holidays.