St John's Co-Cathedral, Valleta
St John's Co-Cathedral is a Roman Catholic co-cathedral in Valletta, Malta, dedicated to Saint John the Baptist. It was built by the Order of St. John between 1572 and 1577, having been commissioned by Grand Master Jean de la Cassière as the Conventual Church of Saint John (Maltese: Knisja Konventwali ta' San Ġwann).
The church was designed by the Maltese architect Girolamo Cassar, who designed several of the more prominent buildings in Valletta. In the 17th century, its interior was redecorated in the Baroque style by Mattia Preti and other artists. The interior of the church is considered to be one of the finest examples of high Baroque architecture in Europe.
The cathedral's exterior is built in the Mannerist style typical of its architect Girolamo Cassar. Its façade is rather plain but well-proportioned, being bounded by two large bell towers. The doorway is flanked by Doric columns supporting an open balcony from which the Grand Master used to address the people on important occasions. On the side are also two empty niches. The niches and the columns are a break with the rest of exterior Mannerist architecture.
Overall, the exterior is rather austere and reminiscent of a fortress, reflecting both Cassar's style as a military engineer as well as the Order's mood in the years following the Great Siege of Malta in 1565.
The cathedral's interior is extremely ornate, standing in sharp contrast with the façade. The interior was largely decorated by Mattia Preti, the Calabrian artist and knight, at the height of the Baroque period. Preti designed the intricate carved stone walls and painted the vaulted ceiling and side altars with scenes from the life of John the Baptist. The figures painted into the ceiling next to each column initially appear to the viewer as three-dimensional statues, but on closer inspection we see that the artist cleverly created an illusion of three-dimensionality by his use of shadows and placement. Also noteworthy is the fact that the carving was all undertaken in-place (in-situ) rather than being carved independently and then attached to the walls (stucco). The Maltese limestone from which the Cathedral is built lends itself particularly well to such intricate carving. The whole marble floor is an entire series of tombs, housing about 400 Knights and officers of the Order. There is also a crypt containing the tombs of Grand Masters like Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam, Claude de la Sengle, Jean Parisot de Valette, and Alof de Wignacourt.
In 1666, a project for the main altar by Malta's greatest sculptor, Melchiorre Cafà, was approved and begun. Cafà intended a large sculpture group in bronze depicting the Baptism of Christ. Following Cafà's tragical death in 1667 in a foundry accident while tending to this work in Rome, the plans were abandoned. Only in 1703, Giuseppe Mazzuoli, Cafà's only pupil, finished a marble group of the Baptism of Christ which might have been influenced by his master's undocumented designs but certainly is strongly dependent on a small baptism group by Alessandro Algardi.
The funerary monument of Grand Master Marc'Antonio Zondadari (died 1722), nephew of Pope Alexander VII, is located close to the main entrance. It was originally meant to be installed in the Chapel of the Langue of Italy, but it was too large so it was placed in the nave.
Notable works of art
The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist, 1608. Oil on canvas, 361 x 520 cm. Oratory of the Co-Cathedral.
The painting depicting The Beheading of Saint John the Baptist (1608) by Caravaggio (1571–1610) is the most famous work in the church. Considered one of Caravaggio's masterpieces, the largest canvas he painted and the only painting signed by the painter, the canvas is displayed in the Oratory for which it was painted. Restored in the late 1990s in Florence, this painting is one of Caravaggio's most impressive uses of the chiaroscuro style for which he is most famous with a circle of light illuminating the scene of St John's beheading at the request of Salome. The oratory also houses Caravaggio's Saint Jerome Writing (1607–1608).
Another impressive feature of the church is the collection of marble tombstones in the nave in which were buried important knights. The more important knights were placed closer to the front of the church. These tombstones, richly decorated with in-laid marble and with the coats of arms of the knight buried below as well as images relevant to that knight, often telling a story of triumph in battle, form a rich visual display in the church.