St. John’s Co-Cathedral: Visiting the gem of Valletta
Every year just under half a million people visit St. John’s Co Cathedral and if you’re looking to be one of them, here’s all you need to know before you visit.
The St. John’s Co-Cathedral is a stunning example of Baroque architecture and should be at the top of your sightseeing itinerary for when you visit Malta’s capital city of Valletta.
The cathedral was built in the early days of the existence of Valletta, following the Great Siege. It helped to shape the country as we know it today and is steeped in the history and culture of Malta.
The rather plain exterior of the cathedral disguises the unique and stunning ornate interior. Stepping inside is like stepping into another world.
- Adults: €10.00
- Seniors: €7.50
- Students: €7.50
- Children under 12: Free
Table of Contents
Why Visit St. John’s Co Cathedral?
Any visit to St John’s Co Cathedral will:
- Immerse you in high Baroque interior design
- Allow you to spend time in one of the most beautiful cathedrals in Europe
- Marvel at the masterpiece paintings in the gallery including Caravaggio’s, ‘The Beheading of St. John the Baptiste’.
- Gain an understanding of Malta’s history and how her culture has been shaped
- Learn about the Order of St. John and the Knights of Malta
- Gaze in wonder at the marble, gold, bronze, silver, and intricate sculpting on the ceilings, walls, and floors
- Allow you to attend mass in the cathedral if you are of Roman Catholic faith.
Where is it?
The cathedral can be found at the very centre of Valletta, with the main entrance being along Triq San Gwann.
However, if you’re looking to visit the cathedral as a tourist, you will have to enter from the side, at the entrance on Triq ir-Repubblika (Republic Street).
How to Get There
If you depend on public transport, most bus routes start and terminate at Valletta, from which it’s a short 15-minute walk to get to the cathedral.
If you use your own transport, I recommend you park outside the city’s limits and walk. Parts of Valletta are pedestrianised and what public parking spaces are available are usually hotly contested by the locals.
The cathedral holds Ecclesiastical Services at the following times:
Sundays & Feast Days:
- 12:00 (Except August & September)
- 17:30 (1 November – 30 June)
- 18:00 (1 July – 31 October)
- 17:30 (1 November – 30 June)
- 18:00 (1 July – 31 October)
A Brief History of St. John’s Co-Cathedral
Following the Great Siege of Malta in 1565 where the 48,000 strong Ottoman army was repelled by 700 Knights of Malta and a few thousand Maltese Militia, the great fear at the time was that the might of the Ottoman Empire would once again try and invade the island.
Much of Malta was devastated by the siege and much of the country had to be rebuilt. This led to the birth of the city of Valletta named after a hero of the siege, Knight Jean Parisot de Valette. When construction began it was decided the city had to be built to withstand and repel the feared invasion forces of the Ottoman Empire with St. John’s Cathedral being at the heart of it. This is why the cathedral has a fortress-like exterior as it formed part of defences against invasion.
It was commissioned by Grand Master Jean de la Cassière as the conventual church of the Order of the Knights Hospitaller of St John (Knights of Malta). Construction started in 1573 and was completed in 1578. Its architect was Glormu Cassar who had designed several prominent buildings in Malta. The Cathedral was dedicated to John the Baptiste the patron saint of the Knights of Malta.
In 1820, the Bishop of Malta, who was seated in Mdina’s St. Paul’s Cathedral, decided that the honour of the main church of the bishop would be shared between the cathedrals. From that point St. John’s Cathedral became known as St John’s Co-Cathedral.
Top tips for Visiting
If you are planning a visit, bear the following in mind:
- Phone the cathedral in advance to see if they have tour bookings available. At busy times they may deny you entry to the cathedral to protect the artefacts. They limit numbers in the Oratory to 52 due to space.
- St. John’s Co-Cathedral is busy throughout the year and so it is best to plan your day around your visit and go early morning when the museum first opens. Tour parties arrive all the time so queues may develop.
- It is not possible to purchase tickets directly from the website but you can book in advance via walking tours that include a visit to the cathedral.
- It is a good idea to plan your day to visit other attractions local to the cathedral as this will help you make the most of your time. There are plenty of places of interest in Valletta. More so than anywhere else around the Maltese islands.
- There are two Caravaggio paintings in the cathedral. They are the ‘St. Jerome Writing’ and ‘The Beheading of St. John the Baptiste’.
- There is a dress code to visit the cathedral. Modest dress is advised and stilettos and narrow heeled shoes are banned to avoid floor damage. Slippers can be purchased at €1.20 per pair. Shawls/wraps are provided at the entrance. If you have a backpack it must be carried in front of you.
- Non-flash photography is allowed.
If you want to get the most out of your visit, expect to spend 3-4 hours to take in the cathedral. There is a lot to see and appreciate and those interested in history and culture may wish to stay longer.
The Stunning Baroque Interior of St John’s Co-Cathedral
The stunning baroque interior of St John’s was not built at the time of construction but added later. New elements were added at later dates inspired by the likes of Mattia Preti and other great artists.
In the 1660s, Italian artist Mattia Preti was commissioned by Grand Master Raphael Cottoner to carve the ornate and intricate decorations which have made the church distinct for centuries. Somewhat, intriguingly, Preti did not make the carvings and sculptures separately and insert them onto the walls but carved them into the walls directly. This is perhaps due to the limestone construction of St. John’s which makes this possible.
In 1666 Melchiorre Gafà was commissioned to create a bronze sculpture depicting the Baptism of Christ in the main altar. Sadly, while working on the project in Rome, Gafà died unexpectedly due to a foundry accident.
Gafà’s only pupil Giuseppe Mazzuoli, completed a marble sculpture of the Baptism of Christ which some believe was taken from Gafà’s own undocumented drawings. Although it depicts two figures it was actually sculpted from one marble block.
Read more on the interior features of the St. John’s Co-Cathedral here:
Once you set foot in the cathedral you will be presented with the naïve or main body of the church. It is divided into nine separate chapels. Each one represents a European region of where the Order of St. John originated. As such, each chapel has its own language.
The nine chapels are:
- The Chapel of the Langue of Castile, Leon and Portugal
- The Chapel of the Langue of Provence
- The Chapel of the Langue of Aragon
- The Chapel of the Langue of Auvergne
- The Chapel of the Langue of Italy
- The Chapel of the Langue of Germany
- The Chapel of the Langue of France
- The Chapel of the Anglo-Bavarian Langue
- The Chapel of Our Lady of Philermos
The nave and chapels are decorated in elaborate baroque architecture and you can spend hours simply gazing upon it.
Our lady of Philermos is a painting of the ‘Blessed Mother’ which is believed to have been painted by St. Luke the Evangelist and brought from Jerusalem. Up until the Venetians invaded Rhodes it was displayed in a place of worship on Mount Philermos and was seen as a great pilgrimage icon.
Later the Venetians sold Rhodes to the order of St. John who found the icon in the ruins of a Byzantine church on Mount Philermos.
The Order promptly built a basilica on the site of the old church and reinstated the icon. From this point it was known as ‘Our Lady of All Mercies’, and later as ‘Our Lady of Philermos’. The Order of St. John believed that as the icon had survived despite impossible odds it was truly blessed and they adopted the Lady of Philermos as their patroness and became her protector.
On a subsequent invasion of Rhodes the church housing the painting was destroyed but the painting survived intact. As the Knights were running short of supplies they accepted the offer from Sultan Suleman and left the island taking the painting with them.
Whenever the Knights went into battle they would congregate and ask for the intercession from Our Lady of Philermos to help them win.
Following the great victory in the Seige of Malta celebrations followed in the form the Feast of Our Lady of Philermos.
The Chapel of Our Lady of Philermos is a separate jurisdiction to the rest of the cathedral and receives an independent financial endowment administered by the vice-prior of the church.
The chapel has an altar and facade made from fine-inlay marble and valuable works of art adorn its walls.
The marble floor is a striking feature of the cathedral and a work of art in of itself. Embedded within it are tombs of the most famous 375 Knights of St John and grand masters. The tombs carry the coat of arms for each person.
Many of the Knights that fell in the Great Siege were buried in Fort St Angelo but ere re-interred in the Cathedral of St John’s. This includes Jean Parisot de Valette. Other notable grand masters and knights include Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, Claude de la Sengle, and Alof de Wignacourt.
The earliest grave dates back to 1606. People continued to be buried in the cathedral until the 19th century.
The cathedral is also famous for three clocks built into the façade. These clocks are like an early automated calendar. One shows the date, the other the day of the week, and the larger central dial the time. Both the day of the week and the date are in Arabic.
When the façade was renovated in 2014 the words ‘Clerici in Vernt’ were found inscribed. This is believed to be the name of the person who built the clocks and façade.
Mattia Preti is acclaimed for shaping Malta as we know it today. The artist was born in Italy in 1613 and his early life was spent studying in Naples. He was highly influenced by Caravaggio and much of his work emulates the great artist’s style.
He came to Malta in 1659 where he was commissioned to create the baroque architecture which we have come to adore. As well as the ornate carvings on the walls the great artist also adorned the ceilings with great works of art.
As one might expect, his work shows scenes from the life of St. John. Some say that some of the paintings use clever shadow work to make them appear three dimensional. This may well be true as Preti used a similar technique on his work ‘Saint Veronica With The Veil’. You can decide for yourself if the paintings are an optical illusion when you visit.
Preti was made a Knight of Grace of the Order of St. John and his artwork can be seen throughout Malta adorning the walls of churches. He spent most of his remaining years in the country.
Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio is revered as one of the world’s great artists. Born in Milan, Italy in 1571 he forged a reputation of defying the elegant balletic conventions of late Mannerist paintings of the time by creating highly realistic religious works. This can be seen in ‘The Beheading of St. John the Baptiste’ which is the standout work in St. John’s Co-Cathedral.
Documents show that Caravaggio had quite a volatile personality. He came to Malta in 1607 to avoid Italian authorities who wanted him for the crime of murder. He would leave a year later after escaping from Fort St. Angelo.
During his time as a free man on Malta, however, he created five paintings one of which was the timeless masterpiece of ‘The Beheading of St. John the Baptiste’.