St. John’s Square seems to be the heart of Valletta and exemplifies the Baroque character of this small capital city of Malta. Originally built by the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem, after successfully defending the island from the great Ottoman invasion in 1565, Valletta survives today as a World Heritage Site. St. John’s Cathedral (I suspect it was demoted to Co-Cathedral after British rule) built on this square was not the first church built by the Knights, but it certainly was the most beautiful and the one with which they are so closely associated and identified.
The gold gilded wood carvings are sumptuous and the cathedral is filled to the brim with lovely paintings and statuary. Unfortunately, we are not permitted to photograph Caravaggio’s Beheading of St. John in situ. We see so many masterpieces in museums out of context, that it was thrilling to see one in the very place it was meant to be; in the very room, on the same wall it was commissioned to be placed. Another Caravaggio, St Jerome was sharing the space in the chapel. I did find these photos of the two Caravaggio masterpieces .
Many of my photos were taken prior to mass and I couldn’t find the Caravaggio’s at all because the chapel was closed at that time and is only opened during tour hours. Unlike most chapels in great cathedrals that are open to the congregation and located on the sides of the building, this chapel was a separate room with large doors. I encourage you to take the tour, unless you are going to mass. Before mass, all people entering the St. John’s are required to stand in the back of the cathedral in a roped off area, not a great spot for anything but the most basic of photos because of all the tourists. Only those attending mass were allowed into the cathedral proper. After mass the lights are closed rather quickly, but I believe my best photos were taken just prior to the mass because of the lighting.
I was especially taken by the sculpture on the right. Since many of the Knights of St. John are interred in the cathedral it may very well be a monument to one of them. The two figures that appear below it are magnificent and very personalized. The one on the left looks like a Barbary pirate, while the young child on the right has characteristics of innocence. His face and hair are extremely accomplished sculpting and the sensuous mouth belies the fact that he is carved from marble.
No space went unadorned in the Baroque style, so the ceilings and walls were utilized for depicting stories from the life of Christ or it seems to promote the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem themselves. Maltese crosses were a strong design element under the arches, as if the order was responsible for holding up and supporting the cathedral, or to carry it a step further, Christendom itself. Perhaps after holding off the Ottoman onslaught they had reason enough to justify such veiled reference or obvious symbolism.
One could easily spend an hour looking around the cathedral identifying biblical stories and that is impossible unless you take the tour (about 6-8 euro). If you decide to go on the tour, go early and get to the chapel holding the Caravaggio paintings first. The entrance is on the left side of the cathedral, not the front and the chapel is on the far wall from the tour entrance on the far right. Now for the most intriguing aspect of the cathedral, as mausoleum and shrine to the Knights.
Images of skeletons grace the floor of the cathedral, and as was the custom centuries ago, the bodies of nobility and clergy were buried beneath. The stone inlays were not as subtle as the paintings nor as elegant as mosaics, but they managed to tell their stories just as well. It was while attending mass that I had time enough to really observe them. As you walk into the cathedral you are bombarded with so much artwork and decoration, it is easy to become distracted and miss more than you would imagine. As you can see by these photos and others, as is customary in many European churches, chairs are used for the congregation to sit on during the service. These photos never could have been taken without moving the chairs aside. Even that may have been forbidden if guards were around, so I used the brief time I had after the service to get to work.
As much as I love the skeletons, the depiction of a battle at sea was my favorite of the few images I could see clearly. I have to believe it has everything to do with defending Malta from the Ottomans. Perhaps the statue I thought looked like a Barbary pirate was actually an Ottoman sailor. If you look at the larger photo, to the right is a depiction of a man with the same shaved head with ponytail and a moustache.
On your way out of St. John’s you might like to stop for a drink or a meal at one of the restaurants operating on the square. Check out the link for RestoReco at the top of the page for restaurant recommendations.