The Co-Cathedral of St. John the Baptist is one of Malta’s main attractions: it is one of the largest cathedrals in the world and one of the main examples of Baroque architecture in Europe, embellished by Caravaggio’s paintings and works by Mattia Preti. The monument, like the entire centre of Valletta, is part of the UNESCO sites.
The construction of the Co-Cathedral was commissioned in 1572 by the Grand Master Jean de la Cassiere. At the end of the works, in 1577, the building became the conventual church of the order, replacing the church of San Lorenzo a Birgu. The oratory and the sacristy were added later, in 1598. Initially, the interior of the Co-Cathedral was modest, with few decorations. However, in the seventeenth century, the Grand Master Cotoner ordered its internal restructuring, to equip the Order of the Knights with a church that could compete in splendour with those of Rome. The direction of the works was entrusted to Mattia Preti, which transformed the interior into a Baroque style. The building remained the convent church of the Order until the Knights were expelled from the island by the French. In the nineteenth century, the church was used for official celebrations as an alternative to the archbishop’s cathedral of Mdina, thus becoming Concattedrale in Malta.
The exterior of the Co-Cathedral
The exterior is austere and reminiscent of a fortress rather than a cult building, reflecting both Cassar’s military engineering training and the style of the Knights of Malta.
The facade of the Concattedrale is very simple compared to the richness of the interior: the construction is in a mannerist style, typical of Cassar. The central door is flanked by two Doric columns, which support an open balcony, from which the Grand Master used to speak to the crowd on important occasions. On the sides of the columns, there are two empty niches, and the facade is delimited by two bell towers that contribute to giving symmetry to the complex.
In sharp contrast to the facade, the interiors are richly decorated. The main author was Mattia Preti who enriched the place of worship during the Baroque period . Preti painted the vaults of the central nave telling episodes from the life of Saint John the Baptist and most of the side altars that celebrate the languages spoken within the Order. His mastery and mastery of chiaroscuro give a strong sense of three-dimensionality to images that do not seem flat but real statues. The way in which the artist managed to embed the phases of the Baptist’s life by exploiting the ribs between one time and another is also of great importance.
The tombs of the Knights
The marble floor consists of about 400 tombs belonging to members of the Order. The tombstones are richly decorated in polychrome marble and bear the crests of the Knights, episodes of life depicting the single deceased (usual scenes of triumph in battle), as well as allegorical elements and epitaphs.
The side chapels
Nine chapels have been created around the side aisles of the Co-Cathedral: one is dedicated to Our Lady of Fileremo and the other eight are dedicated to the patron saints of the languages of the Order. The languages were assigned to the chapels in order of seniority and the predominant ones, Italian, French and Aragonese, placed near the altar.
- Chapel of the Madonna di Fileremo, also known as the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament. the chapel contained the icon of the Madonna di Fileremo, in possession of the Knights from the time of the crusades and currently in Montenegro: the history of this icon is very adventurous.
- Chapel of the Italian language, dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and to Saint Catherine of Alexandria. Here is the Mystic Marriage of Saint Catherine, by Mattia Preti.
- Chapel of the Language of France, dedicated to the Conversion of Saint Paul. Here is the work on the Conversion of Saint Paul on the road to Damascus by Mattia Preti.
- Chapel of the language of Provence, dedicated to Saint Michael the Archangel.
- Chapel of the Anglo-Bavarian language, also known as the Chapel of the Relics, dedicated to San Carlo Borromeo. Here were the relics of which the Order was in possession.
- Chapel of the German language, dedicated to the epiphany of Christ.
- Chapel of the language of Castile, León and Portugal, dedicated to St. James. The altarpiece is the work of Mattia Preti.
- Chapel of the Aragon language, dedicated to Saint George. Here is the altarpiece depicting the martyrdom of the saint, considered one of Mattia Preti’s masterpieces. It was precisely the realization of this altarpiece that consigned the artist to the convent church.
- Chapel of the Auvergne language, dedicated to Saint Sebastian.
Caravaggio and Mattia Preti in Malta
The greatest contribution to the decoration of the Cathedral of St. John the Baptist was given by the Calabrian Mattia Preti. In addition to having painted the ceiling vaults with scenes from the life of Saint John, he made some altarpieces contained in the chapels. His most famous work is probably the Martyrdom of Saint George.
Caravaggio certainly needs no introduction: during his stay in Malta, the famous artist tried to earn his appointment as a Knight to escape the arrest of the papal authorities, painting numerous canvases. The most important and well-known work is the Beheading of John the Baptist, the largest painting he has ever made and the only one bearing his signature, identifiable in the blood stain that flows from the Baptist. The other work is the San Girolamo Scrivente. Both paintings are exhibited in the oratory of the Concattedrale.