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Your Guide to Malta and Gozo - stjohns2

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Brief History of St. John’s

Following Grand Master Del Monte’s decision to transfer the Knights to Valletta from Birgu, the need for a new church to service their spiritual needs became apparent. The building of this new conventual church was commissioned by Grand Master Jean l'Evesque de la Cassière, under the auspices of renowned Maltese architect, Girolamo (Ġlormu) Cassar.

St. John’s was built between 1573 and 1577 and consecrated on February 20th, 1578 by Archbishop Ludovico Torres of Monreale.

Mattia Preti’s transformation of the plain interior of the building into the impressive baroque masterpiece that we know today commenced in 1661. The façade of the cathedral is deceivingly bland and contrasts sharply with the intricate baroque interior.

In the notorious restoration of the 1830s, the Cathedral suffered artistic desacration at the hands of Giuseppe Hyzler. Hyzler was an artist of the Nazarener School that flourished in the early 19th century. The Nazarener movement was characterised by attempts to purge Christian art of baroque elements, favouring a return to simpler Christian roots.


The Choir

Prominent in the choir is the two-tiered, 52 seat choir stall, bearing the insignia of Giorgio Gianpieri and Grand Master Martin Garzes. Complementing this are two visually interesting bronze lecturns. The one on the right hand side of the main altar consists of a life size sculpture of St. Paul holding an open book towards the congregation; the other lecturn, on the left hand side of the altar shows John the Baptist with an eagle above him.

The marble high altar, studded with semi-precious stones was created by Gio Battista Contini. It is further decorated with a bronze relief of the Last Supper, by Girolamo Lucenti.

Aside from the altar itself, the centerpiece of the choir is perhaps the Baptism of Christ, sculpted out of marble by Giuseppe Mazzuoli in 1703 with its spectacular bronze Gloria backdrop by Giardina.


The Nave

The nave is 53 metres long and 15 meters wide. Each Langue in the order had a side chapel of its own within the Cathedral. The arched dome above the nave is divided into six bays, each of which is further divided into distinct north, central, and south sections. Each of these resulting 18 spaces was decorated by Preti with scenes from the life of St. John.   

On either side of each bay is an elliptical window. Preti suggested that these windows should be made larger in order to admit more light into the church. This suggestion was turned down however due to fears that larger windows might compromise the soundness of the structure.

The painting above the main entrance, also by Preti, depicts the dual character of the Order of St. John, namely that of waging war against infidels, and that of providing medical attention to pilgrims requiring it. On this same painting, Preti also included images of the two Cotoner Grand Masters: Rafael and Nicolo.


North Side

i) Chapel of the Anglo-Bavarian Langue

The Bavarian Langue was formed in 1734. The English Langue had been inactive since the time of Henry VIII, having been rendered non-functional by the King who had confiscated its properties. These two groups merged to form the Anglo-Bavarian Langue.

This chapel was formerly known as the Shrine of the Holy Relics. It is an extention of the Chapel of the Langue of Provance. Although not accessible to the public, it may be viewed through the bronze gate on top of a marble balustrade that separates it from the latter chapel. It is dedicated to St. Charles Borromeo.

The altar in this chapel was installed in 1741, on top of which stands a gilted crucifix, by Alessandro Algardi. A wooden sculpure depicting St. Charles Borromeo is by Agostino Masucci. Much of the silverware that used to be in this chapel was looted by the French, during their two year occupation of Malta. Two reliquaries contain relics of various saints.

The entrance to the Crypt of the Grandmasters is in this chapel.


ii) Chapel of the Langue of Provence

This chapel is dedicated to St. Michael. The altarpiece is a Mattia preti rendition of a painting by Guido Reni, depicting “St. Michael the Archangel. There is only one lunette in this chapel, representing theApparition of St Michael on Mount Gargano”. This may perhaps be attributed to Lucas Kilian.

The walls in this chapel are decorated with the imperial Eagle motif, from the coat of Arms of Grand Master Lascaris, the merlin from the coat of arms of Pierre de Merle de Beauchamp.

The two mauseola in this chapel belong to Grand Master Antoine de Paule and to Grand Master Lascaris.


iii) Chapel of the Langue of France

This Chapel is dedicated to the conversion of St. Paul. In a fit of Nazarener frenzy, the then curator of St. John’s wreaked damage to this chapel by removing its original 1666 baroque altar and replacing it with a much simpler, plain marble one. The side walls were redecorated with Fleur-de-Lys motifs, interspersed with crowns and eight pointed crosses.

The lunettes in this chapel are by Lucas Kilian and represent St. Paul’s shipwreck and St. Paul’s beheading respectively.

On the northernmost side of the chapel, to the left of the archway that leads to the Chapel of the Langue of Provance is a white marble sepulchral monument in honour of Joachim de Wignacourt, nephew of Grand Master Alof de Wignacourt. Joachim died in Malta in 1615. On the other side of this same archway is a monument to Grand Master Adrien de Wignacourt. An elaborate mauseolum by Antonaci Grech, in honour of Grand Master De Rohan faces that of Joachim de Wignacourt. The reclining figure in the mausoleum facing the Adrien de Wignacourt monument is Louis Charles d’Orly, the brother of King Louis Philippe of France. This monument is by Jean Jacques Prodier and was commissioned by the King himself when he came to power, in order to replace a much more modest one by Fotin in 1819.


 (iv) Chapel of the Langue of Italy

This chapel is jointly dedicated to the Immaculate Conception and St. Catherine of Alexandria.

The old Baroque altar is from 1733, whilst the intricate marble component was a later addition by Romano Carapecchia. The walls are profusely decorated. The prominently displayed RC initials on the walls refer to Grand Master Raphael Cotoner.

The lunettes are by Mattia Preti and show: St. Catherine disputing with the Philiosphers; and The Martyrdom of Catherine.

The famous St. Jeromepainting by Mattia Preti used to hang here. This has been transferred to the cathedral’s museum collection and has been replaced by a copy.

Worth noting is the mausoleum of Grand Master Gregorio Carafa with two angels. The sculpure behind the bust is a representation of the battle of the Dardanelles, fought in 1656, which saw the Ottomans incur heavy losses. Carafa himself was Captain General of the Galleys. This creator of this monument is perhaps Roman sculptor Ciro Ferri.


v) Chapel of the Langue of Germany

The Chapel of the Langue of Germany is dedicated to the Epiphany of Christ. The altarpiece is by Stefano Erardi and depicts the Adoration by the Magi. The lunettes in this chapel represent: The Nativity of Christ; and The Massacre of the Innocents. These have also been attributed to Erardi.


South Side

i) Chapel of Our Lady of Philermos

Also known as the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, the Chapel of our Lady of Philermos is named after an icon brought to Malta by the Knights of St. John in 1530 from Rhodes. This icon was held in high esteem by the order, as it was believed to be miraculous. Grand Master Hompesch felt compelled to ask Napoleon for permission to grant him possession of the icon after the Knights were ousted from power. This icon was later to be passed on to Tzar Paul I of Russia, the next Grand Master of the Order.

In 1868, a painting by Pietro Gagliardi became the cenrepiece in this chapel; this was later to be transferred to the Mdina Cathedral. Since 1954, a copy of the Madonna of Lanciano has been revered here, and was transferred from the Chapel of the Langue of Italy.

Noteworthy is the marble balustrade and the sliver gates. These replaced the Bronze gates that are now at the entrance of the chapel of the Anglo-Bavarian Langue. Also of interest is a bunch of keys that used to belong to Ribad of Hammamet, who surrendered to the Knights in 1602.


ii) Chapel of the Langue of Auvergne

The Chapel of Auvergne is the second chapel on the south side of the cathedral and is dedicated to St. Sebastian. The lunettes in this chapel are by Giuseppe d’Arena and show Pope Caius blessing the Saint; and St. Sebastian’s Martyrdom.

St. Sebastian’s Martyrdomis also represented in the altarpiece, perhaps by Silvestro Querio.

The only monument in this chapel is that to the shortest reigning, Grand Master, Annet de Clermont de Chattes-Gessan. This chapel is also the burial place of Melchior de Robles y Pereira, who arrived in Malta during the height of the Great Siege and died whilst supervising work on the fortifications of Fort St. Michael.

 iii) Chapel of the Langue of Aragon

The chapel of the Langue of Aragon is dedicated to St. George and is the third on the south side of the Cathedral. The altarpiece is by Mattia Preti and shows a triumphant St. George on a white stallion after having emerged victorious over Satan in the form of a dragon. Interestingly, this painting that Preti completed in Naples is the oldest work of his in Malta. Two lunettes depict The Martyrdom of St. Lawrence; and The Meeting of St. Lawrence and Pope Sixtus. Both are by Mattia Preti, as are the paintings of St. Firminius and St. Francis Xavier. This chapel also contains monuments to Nicolas Cotoner, probably by Domenico Guidi; to Grand Master Perellos, by Giuseppe Mazzuoli; and monuments to de Redin and Rafael Cotoner.


iv) Chapel of the Langue of Castille, Leon and Portugal

This chapel is dedicated to St. James the Less. This saint is depicted on the altarpiece by Mattia Preti. The lunettes are also by Mattia Preti and illustrate St. James’s Vision of Our Lady of Pilar, and St. James Assisting the Spaniards in Defeating the Moors.

Worthy of note is the spectacular bronze and black marble monument to Grand Master de Vilhena by Massimiliano de Soldanis Benzis. There is also a less pompous monument to Grand Master Pinto, by Vincenzo Pacetti.


The Crypt of Bartolott

The Crypt of Bartolott is located beneath the Oratory and is named after Don Giovanni Bartolott, Confessor of Grand Master Wignacourt. The Crypt used to be used as a burial ground for the Knights. The altar was probably installed after 1900, as it is never referred to in earlier documents. It was allowed to seriously deteriorate for many years but was painstakingly restored in 1983-4


The Grand Masters’ Crypt

This is located under the main altar of the Cathedral and is accessed through a passageway from the Chapel of the Anglo-Bavarian Langue. It contains the remains of Grand Masters that reigned between 1522 and 1623. The mortal remains of Grand Master L’Isle Adam were transferred to this crypt from Fort St. Angelo in 1577. La Vallette was similarly exhumed from the vault in the Our Lady of Victories Church and taken to his final resting place in the Grand Masters’ Crypt.


The Sacristy

The Sacristy was originally built in 1598. It used to contain a gallery of mannerist paintings. However all of the paintings save The Flagellation of Christby Stefano Pieri were transferred to the Cathedral Museum in 1996.

The passageway that leads to the sacristy contains three lunettes. The central lunette depicting The Nativity of the Virginis by Mattia Preti whilst the others are by Giulio Cassarino. Also by Cassarino are The Circumcision of the Baptist and St. John Being Healed by the Holy Women.


The Oratory

The use of photographic equipment is prohibited in the Oratory!

The Oratory was not only used for private meditation but also for the congregation of the Order’s novices. It was completed around 1605. What until the 1860s was little more than a bland space was transformed by Mattia Preti into a celebration of Baroque art. It is thought that this is the location in which Caravaggio created his Magnum Opus The Beheading of St. John. Both this painting and another important painting by Caravaggio – theSt. Jerome - are still housed in the Oratory.

The Oratory is richly decorated with paintings depicting the scenes from the Passion of Jesus Christ and other works of art. To the left side of the altar is a gruesome sculpture by Pierre Puget, representing the severed head of St. John.

 Formerly, the wooden Crucifix by Polidoro Caldara da Caravaggio that today is in the passageway that leads to the Oratory used to be in the Chapel of Our Lady of Philernos. It was restored by Bruno Arciprete in 1989-1990 and placed in its current location on its return.


The Cathedral Museum

The use of photographic equipment is prohibited in the Museum!

On exiting the Oratory, several flights of steps will take you to the Cathedral’s museum.

At the entrance of the museum, the visitor is greeted by a colossal bronze relief of Christ the Saviour, by Alessandro Algardi. This is used to be in an aedicule facing the Grand Harbour until 1712. It was then re-installed on the façade of a Church in the Grand Harbour when the original niche was pulled down. Around 1853, this church was demolished and the sculpture was thence transferred to St. John’s pediment.

Along the stairway leading to the Perellos Hall are tapestries by Jodocus de Vos (1661–1734), a prolific Flemish weaver. These tapestries were woven between 1697 and 1700 and represent the Apostles Peter and Paul. They are thought to have been designed by Mattia Preti. In the Perellos Hall proper is a splendid collection of tapestries, also by de Vos. These tapestries were donated to the Cathedral by Grand Master Perellos. A balcony connects the Perellos Hall to the Ciro Ferri Hall where three sets of illuminated choral books are displayed. These were donated by L’Isle Adam, Verdalle and de Paule respectively.

A passageway from the Perellos Hall leads to the Vestments Hall. The first exhibit is a massive crucifix, with an ivory figure of Christ on a walnut cross standing on a gilded copper pedestal. This Hall houses an impressive collection of richly embroidered chausubles. A stairway leads to a lower section. The tapestries here are also by Jodocus de Vos. There is also a collection of antependiums and copes, mostly donated by Grand Masters Adrien de Wignacourt, Lascaris, Nicolo Cotoner and Pinto.

The Picture Gallery is in the Mgr. Coleiro Hall, named after the museum’s founder. Perhaps the most important painting in the collection is the Baptism of Christ, by Matteo Perez d’Aleccio. This used to be the main altarpiece in the Cathedral before it was replaced by the marble sculpture by Giuseppe Mazzuoli. This painting is flanked by two equally large, oil on canvas paintings by Francesco Potenzano:The Martyrdom of St. Catherine of Alexandria; and St. George Killing the Dragon.

The central painting in the Deposition triptych shows a mournful Virgin Mary holding the lifeless body of Christ as a female disciple holds his pierced hand and a male disciple stands in the backdrop, hands together and downcast. The wings show Nicodemus and Mary Magdalene.

Another interesting painting is a portrait of Mattia Preti by an unknown artist. On the far end of the Hall is a large painting by Antoine Favray, showing a lavishly robed Grand Master Emmanuel Pinto de Fonseca.

Two paintings that used to reside in the Chapel of the Langue of France have recently been transferred to the museum. These are: Young St. John the Baptistand The Madonna of the Divine Love. 

You may exit the Cathedral complex through the book shop into the churchyard, to where the remains of Knights that had perished during the Great Siege of Malta were transferred from Birgu.