MALTA DIARY: Valletta’s St John’s Co-Cathedral – one of the most renowned in the world
There were two aspects to the Knight Hospitaliers of the Order of St John of Jerusalem; the first was a caring and nursing role and provision of then known medicines to treat the war wounded and general disease prevention. This resulted in the pioneer opening of hygienic hospitals (that is, hygienic for that era!).
Their nursing role later gave birth to the St John’s Ambulance Brigade, still very much active today and still bearing the Maltese Cross as their logo. This is a bit of a misnomer as it is not a Maltese Cross at all but has always related to Malta although it was the Knights’ Cross.
The other aspect was a fierce and militant military role which had led the fray in The Crusades and then continued as the principle defenders of the Christian faith in Europe against the forays of Islam. The Grandmasters and Knights were constantly geared for war, well-armed and well-trained and they conscripted local soldiers and mariners as well as openly sanctioning piracy and plunder at sea either through their own galleys or by contracting mercenary captains who owned their own ship. These were stringently licensed and checked as a licence was specifically for attacking Muslim ships and under no circumstances could a Christian ship be pirated!
Leading Knights in the Order were closely related to Europe’s royal families and had great aspirations and expectations. They took vows of abstinence from carnal pleasures (rarely observed!) and almost regarded themselves as Bishops and Cardinals although they were not ordained to celebrate Mass, confer baptisms, hear confessions and distribute Holy Communion.
Their military might was a matter of concern for other sectors of Christianity, particularly the Popes at the time who viewed their power with a suspicious eye. Some Grandmasters even went as far as to assume they were the equivalent of a Pope and portraits of them often contained the Papal Hat and the Papal Keys somewhere in the background.
When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded and took Malta at the end of the 18th Century one of his first measures was to immediately banish the Order from the islands – despite its French connections and particularly Grandmaster Jean de la Valette, the founder of Valletta who was of course French.
After emerging victorious from the Great Siege of 1565 mounted by Turkish Ottoman forces, de la Valette’s immediate action was to found Valletta as Malta’s new capital city, replacing Mdina which was an inland city while la Valette wanted a city overlooking the Grand Harbour as the key to the domination of the Maltese Islands. Unfortunately he did not live long enough to see his dream fully accomplished.
A capital city naturally had to have a grand Cathedral although there was already a Cathedral with its Chapter in Mdina and thus Valletta had to settle for a Co-Cathedral which aptly enough was named St John’s Co-Cathedral.
Once more, power and aspirations lurked in the background and the Knights ensured the new Co-Cathedral would rival the Vatican and other European churches, including Paris’s Notre Dame.
After the death of La Valetta he was succeeded by Grandmaster Jean de la Cassière (another Frenchman) who commissioned the renowned and accomplished Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar to design and supervise the building of a new and splendid Cathedral. Work began in 1572 and lasted five years and the building became known as the Conventual Church of St John, that is their “home” church. Incidentally, Cassar was also responsible for many other fine baroque buildings in Valletta.
Initially, the interior decor was mainly simple and very plain but by the mid-17th Century Grandmaster Raphael Cotoner decided that no expenses were to be spared in its embellishment and the interior was re-decorated in baroque style by the renowned Calabrian artist Mattia Preti and a number of other artists. In mid-18th Century Grandmaster Antonio Manoel de Vilhena ordered the building of a number of annexes to the side of the Cathedral.
The Co-Cathedral grew and grew in splendour, embellished further by Flemish Gobelin Tapestries (although these are not as splendid as those found at The Palace also in Valletta). It was also endowed by various prestigious works of art, including paintings by the rogue artist Caravaggio and one of his most famous portrayals of The Beheading of St John.
Over the years the artistry was further embellished by tomb and crypt final resting places for the Grandmasters and Knights, each trying to outdo their predecessors in splendour, embellishment and trappings of power. By comparison the crypt of Jean de la Valette, the original founder of it all, is simplistic and puritan.
There is of course a whole history to be related, but more about that in further future articles. One notable episode – when the French colonised Malta they tried to strip all the expensive luxury symbols that belonged to the Knights to cart them back to France. One of the Co-Cathedral’s annexes was adorned with a set of resplendent and priceless solid silver gates.
Aware that the French would certainly haul them away, the Maltese feverishly set about re-painting them bronze to transform them into “brass” gates and sure enough, the French overlooked them and by-passed them and they are still there today!