Built by the Order of the Knights of St John in Malta between 1572 and 1577 to act as their conventual church, St John’s Co-Cathedral was intended to be a landmark visible from wherever you were standing on the island. While this isn’t quite the case these days, the Co-Cathedral, located round the corner from the Castellania and a few metres up from the Grandmaster’s Palace, still holds an important place in the heart of this vibrant and bustling European capital.
The church was originally designed to be rather austere, but this all changed in the 17th century, when Grand Master Ralph Cotoner felt that the Co-Cathedral should rival the most elegant churches in Rome. The embellishment work was entrusted to the well-known Italian artist, Mattia Preti, who refitted the church in the Baroque style and decorated the vault with scenes depicting the life of St John the Baptist.
St John’s Co-Cathedral – Tombstones
Ask anyone who’s visited St John’s and they’ll tell you that the first thing you notice is the floor. Every inch of space inside the church – from the main nave to the Grand Masters’ crypt – is taken up with breathtaking ornamental tombstones, each one inlaid with intricate designs picked out in vibrantly coloured marble.
The tombstones commemorate the lives (and deaths!) of some of the most illustrious members of the Order of the Knights – almost four hundred of them! Many of the tombstones feature the figure of death, clothed in a robe, wielding sickle or scythe, and while others depict hourglasses and angels, and pithy latin inscriptions describing the interred knights and all their virtues.
St John’s Co-Cathedral – Other Highlights
No description of St John’s is complete without at least a mention of Michelangelo Merisi da Caravaggio. This loveable rogue is one of the most important and influential painters in the history of Western art, and in 1607 he fled to Malta from Italy, where he was wanted for murder.
Somehow, Caravaggio convinced the Grand Master to let him stick around and he was put to work producing some of his best work, including The Beheading of St John the Baptist, which still hangs in the cathedral to this day.