A Brief Introduction to St John’s Co-Cathedral
Despite its somewhat austere exterior, St John’s Co-Cathedral’s interior is a fantastic gem of Baroque art and architecture and a must-see for any visitor to Valletta in Malta. The building was initially built as a conventual church for the Knights of St John. The Grand Masters of the Knights of St John and several of the knights donated gifts and money to fill the church with incredible works of art.
Why Is It Called St John’s Co Cathedral?
A co-cathedral is a cathedral which shares the function of being a bishop’s seat with another cathedral.
In Malta, since the 1820s, St John’s Co-Cathedral in Valletta has shared this function with St Paul’s Cathedral in Mdina. Mdina was the former capital of Malta. It’s a beautiful old city and also a must-see on any trip to Malta.
A Brief History of the Co-Cathedral
The construction of what is now St John’s Co-Cathedral was commissioned in 1572 by Grand Master Jean de la Cassière. The church is dedicated to St John the Baptist, the patron saint of the Knights of St John.
After the Great Siege of 1565, when the Ottoman Empire tried unsuccessfully to take Malta, the Knights decided to build a new fortified capital city. In the centre of the new city, ‘Valletta’ was to be the church. The church was completed in 1577.
The plain façade with its two tall bell towers is rather austere and in some ways resembles a fortress. However, the sheer size of the church was built to express the power of Catholicism. This huge conventual church became the Knights’ of St John religious headquarters.
It was during the seventeenth century that the Baroque style was introduced. The Knights were extremely keen to have a church that would rival the great churches of Rome.
Artist Mattia transformed the interior of the church into a fabulous celebration of Baroque art that we see today. It is the contrast between the plain architecture of the exterior and the flamboyance of the interior that makes St John’s Co-Cathedral so unique and so worthy of a visit.
St John’s Co-Cathedral After Napoleon Expelled The Knight’s of St John
In 1798, After the Knight’s of St John were expelled from Malta by Napoleon troops, the church no longer functioned as the Knights’ conventual church. Napoleon Bonaparte decreed the church was to serve and operate as the co-cathedral for the Bishop of Malta.
Two years later, in September 1800, the French surrendered to the British in Malta. But it wasn’t until 1816 that Pope Pius VII confirmed the election of St John’s church to Co-Cathedral.
The island of Malta finally gained its independence from Britain in 1964.
Today, St John’s Co-Cathedral is a venue for many cultural events and one of Malta’s most popular attractions in Malta. And deservedly so.
St John Co-Cathedral Floor
As you walk around the cathedral admiring the ceiling art, don’t forget to look down. The marble floor is a work of art in itself.
It’s a marble patchwork of 405 tombstones belonging to the Knights of St John and other noblemen.
Latin inscriptions and baroque imagery on the tombstones attest to the Knights’ virtues, with proclamations of fame, victory, triumph and death.
Be Sure To Visit The Oratory To See Artist Caravaggio’s Most Famous Painting
Inside the Oratory, is the impressive oil on canvas painting ‘Beheading of St. John the Baptist’. Painted by Italian artist Caravaggio in 1608 during his time in Malta. It is considered to be Caravaggio’s masterpiece and is the only one of his paintings to bear his signature.
I don’t know much about art, but I love Caravaggio’s excellent use of shadow and shafts of light. His portraits and the attention to details make his paintings look like photos.
Who Was Caravaggio?
Michelangelo Merisi Caravaggio was born in Italy around 1571. He had a bit of a reputation for drunkenness and violent behaviour. One observer of Caravaggio said, “After a fortnight’s work he will swagger about for a month or two with a sword at his side and a servant following him, from one ballcourt to the next, ever ready to engage in a fight or an argument.”
During a fight in Rome in 1606, he killed a man, a well-known pimp and fled to Malta. In Malta, he was welcomed into the Order of Malta as a Knight of Justice. However, he was soon stripped of this title when the Order learned about the murder.
It was during his time in Malta, that he painted his most famous painting, ‘Beheading of St. John the Baptist’. In July 1608, he attacked one of the most senior knights in the Order of St. John in Malta. Caravaggio was arrested and jailed for the attack, but just a month later, he escaped and fled to Naples.
He died two years later on his way to Rome where he was hoping to receive a pardon from the pope.
See here, for a more detailed biography of Caravaggio.
How Do I Get To St John’s Co-Cathedral?
Map Of St John’s Co-Cathedral
St John’s Co-Cathedral is located on Triq San Gwann in the heart of Valletta.
Buses to Valletta terminate close to Valletta City Gate, and it’s just a short walk from there.
Coming from Sliema or the Three Cities, take the ferry and then walk to the centre. It shouldn’t take more than ten minutes to get there.
Driving – Parking can be difficult, especially during the busy summer months. We’d recommend parking close to the bus terminal and walking from there.
Opening Hours At St John’s Co-Cathedral
Open daily except Sundays and public holidays.
Monday to Saturday from 10:30 to 14:30 (last entry 14:00)
How Much Does It Cost To Visit St John’s Co-Cathedral?
Students and Senior Citizens €7,50
Children under the age of 12 are free if accompanied by an adult.
The price of your ticket includes a handheld audio guide with 24 stops.
Note: If you are visiting St John’s Co-Cathedral for prayer, there is no charge. Notify the staff at the ticket desk, and they will take you to the chapel.
Is It Worth Visiting?
Yes!!! It’s a work of art. The interior is absolutely stunning. If you love churches, you must visit. If you don’t enjoy churches, you should still visit.
It can get very crowded and is a popular stop for cruise visitors. So try and avoid visiting on cruise ship days if you can or arrive early.
We suggest you allow at least an hour to explore, preferably longer.
Do you enjoy visiting religious buildings when you travel? Tell us about your favourite churches, mosques, synagogues, temples in the comments below.
See here for more ideas of what to see and do in Valetta.