In the center of tiny Valletta I found one of the most remarkable, most beautiful churches I’ve ever seen. Completed in 1578, this was the principal church of the Knights of the Order of St. John of Jerusalem also known as the Knights Hospitallers. Both the exterior and interior design were originally quite plain – the height is not great, the windows are clear, the carving of the columns rather simple.
In the years that followed, until they were driven out of Malta by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, the church was filled with gold, paved in marble art, and some excellent paintings including one truly extraordinary work of art.
The Knights of Malta (as the Knights of St. John came to be known) trace their beginnings to the First Crusade in the 11th century. You may have heard the term “Maltese Cross” used to represent an eight-pointed star. It’s believed that the shape of the Maltese Cross was used by crusaders from the time of the first crusade. By the 16th century when they arrived in Malta, the Order had organized itself into eight regional groups representing areas of western Europe. In the design of this church eight large side altars were created, each one assigned to one of those groups.
Mattia Preti of Calabria in Italy was summoned to Malta to paint the portrait of the Grand Master in 1659. He was asked by the Order to decorate their church in the baroque style that was then in favor in Italy. Preti enlarged the windows in each bay and created openings between them, increasing the light inside. The bays on the each side of the church became chapels for the eight European groups of the Knights of Malta.
As you can imagine, each chapel is beautiful. They are covered in gold and each one holds at least one major painting; some also have fine paintings in the arches at the top of the chapel as well.
It was Preti who painted the ceiling which never fails to remind visitors of the Sistine Chapel at the Vatican in Rome. The scenes represent times in the life of John the Baptist.
The floor may be the most interesting area of this church. Four hundred knights are buried in the cathedral floor, and each of their bodies is covered by a unique design made entirely of marble and colored stone.
The high altar’s centerpiece is a sculpture of Jesus being baptized by John the Baptist with a representation of the Holy Spirit in the form of a dove in the gold work behind the sculpture. The altar is surrounded on three sides by 16th century choir stalls carved with scenes of the life of St. John the Baptist. A solid silver sanctuary lamp hangs from the ceiling and six great silver candlesticks stand tall.
All of the elements that comprise this church are extraordinarily beautiful but none is better known or of greater value than this painting by Caravaggio, one of two found in the Co-Cathedral.
Caravaggio, whose work dates from the time around the turn of the 16th to the 17th century is considered by many to have been the greatest artist of his time. He’s best known for developing the technique of placing illuminated personages before dark backgrounds. He came to Valletta to escape being sanctioned by the pope, having been accused of murder. He fled after being imprisoned in Malta because of his involvement in another death. He died in 1610.
A painting of St. Jerome created by Caravaggio ca. 1605-08 hangs in the Museum located in the Oratory of the Co-Cathedral. A more famous Caravaggio work represents the beheading of John the Baptist. This enormous painting is approximately 12 feet high and 17 feet wide. Photographs of these works are not permitted but there are many images of it on the internet so I borrowed one of them to show to you. You can learn more here.
The site for St. John’s Co-Cathedral
A good, if brief, history of the Knights of St. John (Hospitallers) from the Encyclopedia Brittanica
Do you like touring beautiful old churches? Do you like blog posts like this one that are longer and more detailed than most? Please tell me your thoughts in the “Comments.”
Sis, I noticed when I lived in Germany that the ambulances usually have the words “Malteser Hilfsdienst” on the side…. along with the Maltese Cross. I’ve often wondered if there was a connection between this organization and the Knights of Malta.
There is indeed! That picture I included of the side chapel is the chapel of the German branch of the Knights. In fact, I believe it was a German who was the Grand Master who gave Preti the contract to redesign and decorate the nave.
Yes indeed, I enjoy your blogs with more information about a particular place or topic. This was fascinating. I didn’t know anything about the Knights of Malta. What a lovely church! So beautiful and what a history. I wondered if it was still an active church but got the answer to that at one of the links. I also enjoyed watching the video on the restoration of the angel. I love Carravaggio’s paintings but didn’t know about the Malta connection and about his suspected murderous behavior. Thanks again for sharing your trip!
Wanted to read all your blogs on Malta at one time – really enjoy learning ALL about a new place. You post some fabulous pictures. I’ve found that I learn more about a place by reading mysteries set in whatever country (or state) and was fascinated by a mystery I read that takes place during World War II when the British used the island as a submarine base and air field. Good mystery that had me traipsing all over the island with its caverns and stone walks. Wanted to find out about the Maltese dog (my niece had one), but I think that’s one of the least interesting things about the island.
Keep trekking! and more pictures of the wonderful Mediterranean please.